I found myself in the unlikely position earlier a week ago of calling up a hundred residents of my hometown of Harding, New Jersey, to advocate for two pro-choice Democratic female candidates for the township committee. Unlikely because Democrats rarely even run for—much less win—elected office in Harding. The center of ritzy horse country in Morris Country, Harding is a one-party town. There is an annual steak-and-lobster dinner for residents every June at the shingled Colonial firehouse, to give you an idea.
So, it was with nervous anticipation that I dialed each number on my call-sheet.
“Hi my name is Katie Parker-Magyar, and I’m calling to urge you to vote tomorrow for Rhonda Allen and Kate Barry, the Democratic candidates for Harding Township Committee. Are you planning on voting tomorrow?”
At this moment, I would draw in breath, waiting for the response. Oftentimes, however, it was encouraging.
“Of course, I’m voting for Kate and Rhonda!” one man enthused. “I’ve been a Democrat in Harding for decades, and I thought I was the only one. This town needs this. The future is female, isn’t that what everyone is saying? It’s the next generation, the young kids like yourself, who are going to make things happen.”
Though he thought I was eighteen, (off by a decade), I was nonetheless encouraged—though slightly concerned the nervousness in my voice belied the gravitas of the message. Apparently, your voice rises an octave or two when you’re paranoid the person you’re calling is either a closeted conservative or a former high-school classmate. I’d reverted back to sounding like the student I’d been when I was growing up in this town.
“I never share my politics with anyone,” another woman informed me. “Kate and Rhonda did a wonderful job at that presentation last week, but I’m not going to tell you, or anyone else for that matter, who is getting my vote. I’ve never talked about politics in my life, and I’m not planning on starting now.”
I was polite on the line, but it was a response I’d heard a couple times—and each time it was disconcerting. Not sharing your opinion about who you’re voting for is part of the problem, particularly in a town where democracy isn’t even practiced. There are no Democratic representatives in Harding: the wealthy enclave is a haven for conservatives, and is the hometown of Republican Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen. To be liberal is to stand out.
But, you have to be uncomfortable for change to be made. To be apolitical these days is an exercise in privilege: you’re so insulated and protected by your position in society that it doesn’t matter who wins or loses—you’re always winning.
But local protest affects national change, something I experienced when I first found myself sitting at a Harding Township Democrats meeting this spring. Established post-Trump, the committee aimed to put two Democratic women on the township committee in this Republican stronghold within the heart of Frelinghuysen territory.
Looking around the room, I was inspired by the size of the crowd, and the breadth of their knowledge about local and national issues.
“I never knew there were so many Democrats in Harding,” the lady in pearls and loafers beside me kept commenting, in between impassioned rants about the hometown Congressman’s largely Trump-lockstep voting record.
The crowd was predominantly women, though there were men present as well, and all ages were represented. Reproductive rights, climate change, immigration policy was debated heatedly for hours (way past many of these ladies’ bedtime).
Most impressive? One of the candidates, Kate Barry, is the daughter of a prominent former Republican assemblyman—and still in her early thirties. Kate is a local Realtor in town, but also takes care of local residents’ horses on the side, which people joked gave her a natural advantage in horse country. Kate also owns a donkey, which was woefully under-used, in my opinion, in the campaign.
The people in the room had long felt like the sole Democrats in a town full of Republicans, and now they had found a means of channeling their energy. The passion in the room, the commitment to engendering change, was contagious. I witnessed a movement starting in my conservative hometown, and knew it would persevere regardless of whether our candidates succeeded in this first election.
The Republicans, naturally, were furious. A pamphlet handed out by the opposition warned of “tax and spend” liberals who would “destroy the fabric”!of our town.
“Why do you have to do this?” one local Republican politician asked my father at a dinner party. He’d been involved with Kate and Rhonda’s campaign from its inception.
“Why do we have to do what?” he asked.
“Why do you need to run?
As in: Why does there need to be a two-party system? Who cares? He was irritated that Democrats thought they should even run for elected office in a Republican stronghold like Harding and mystified by witnessing democracy in action.
On election day, the polling headquarters at the library was packed. The turnout was huge (on both sides). This is what Democracy looks like, I thought.
Outside in the parking lot, cars were queued up to leave. One man shouted in my direction and rolled down the window of his BMW to wave me over to him. I was wearing my Harding Democrats pin.
“I voted for you guys,” he said. “I marked off Democrat up and down the board. I’m a lifelong Republican, but I wanted to stick it to my party, it’s bullshit.”
The outcome? Kate and Rhonda won 33% of the vote, double the 17% Democratic registration in the town. The strength of the numbers gained larger recognition, even being mentioned by Brian Lehrer on NPR. We may not have won in Harding, but Democrats won local races in five nearby townships, including Governor Christie’s hometown of Mendham Township.
This is the revolution, and it is being held in small towns across the country. You will be taking a front-row seat this holiday season, whether you like it or not. When you sit down at the dinner table, speak up. That is what democracy looks like.
Katherine is a weekly columnist for Roar. A freelance writer and editor based in New York City, she writes frequently about culture, political and social issues, literature, and travel. She received her master’s degree from The New School, with honors in nonfiction writing. Follow her work at www.katherineparkermagyar.com.