Bloc the Vote
What should we make of voting blocs? Are they legitimate means of political organization? Are they an oversimplification of demographics and voting trends? Do they undermine and delegitimize the political process?
I’ve been thinking about this lately as I’ve watched the evolution of local politics from afar. It struck me as strange that a new political party’s approach to pushing back against an established voting bloc was to create a voting bloc of their own, while simultaneously calling into question the existence of voting blocs in the first place. It struck me as strange that a movement whose primary message is “If we all vote, we all win” [emphasis theirs] organized in part around opposition to the will of a subset of the population that represents approximately 40% of registered voters and approximately 55% of the town’s residents. And it struck me as stranger still that this party’s candidate for town supervisor would say “The bloc vote ‘can be a corrupting element.’ The current board was elected by the bloc vote and is therefor[sic] beholden to it, and ‘has been ignoring the rest of the town.’”
Perhaps we should step back a bit for some context.
My town — Monroe, NY — is one of the more unique places in America. In many ways, it seems rather nondescript: it is a suburb of approximately 40,000 located an hour northwest of Manhattan. We straddle the border between the outer reaches of the commutable NYC metro area and the more rural portion of the state. If you ask most local residents, our claim to fame is being the birthplace of Velveeta cheese and the annual “Cheese Fest” held in its honor. So, in many ways, we are a pretty typical town.
But… not really…
Within Monroe is the Village of Kiryas Joel. Kiryas Joel — KJ, for short — is the poorest community in America. The median income for families was just over $15,000. Sixty-two percent of residents live below the poverty line. Fourty-six percent of residents speak English “not well” or “not at all”. Just 5.9% of the population hold college degrees.
Yikes. Is this suburban New York? Or downtown Detroit? Or deep in Appalachia?
Yet, KJ has virtually no crime. Walk the streets and you won’t see anyone homeless or destitute. The residents are well-dressed and appear to go about their lives quite happily.
So what gives? Well, the residents of KJ are Satmars.
Per Wikipedia, the Satmars are a Hasidic sect originating in Transylvania and which has quickly become one of the largest Hasidic movements in the world. They are a very insular group, known for isolating themselves from all forms of secular society. KJ is one of the largest communities of Satmars in America, with a population over 22,000. It is an incorporated village within the town of Monroe and represents the largest (by population) portion of the town. There are two other incorporated villages (Village of Monroe and Village of Harriman) as well as the unincorporated areas of town (where I live).
For a variety of reasons, KJ has strained relationships with its various neighbors. Some of the friction from outsiders is legitimate: the high rates of poverty within the community, caused by large families (typically ranging in size from 6 to 10) and single incomes (women typically stop working after the birth of the second child), results in high taxes; the public school system is strained by a high frequency of children with special needs in the community and the fact that all typically developing children attend private school; KJ continually seeks to annex property as its population continues to grow at exponential rates; the fast growing population and hyper-dense housing preferred in the community puts a strain on the local water supply and waste treatment facilities. Plus there is the day-to-day frustration with a community whose members have no qualms engaging with the broader secular society when it is convenient or necessary (such as taking advantage of stores like Home Depot) but is not nearly as welcoming when non-members frequent their part of town.
But there is also more at play. If you talk with enough people, eventually the conversation shifts from taxes and pipeline projects to whispers about “those people” and hygiene. Kiryas Joel or KJ is dropped from the vernacular and they are referred to simply as “the Orthodox” or “the Hasids”. Voices drop, people look over their shoulders, and the rumors begin. What started as a reasonable conversation about the unique difficulties our town faces becomes an exercise in subtle and not-so-subtle anti-semitism.
Which brings me back to the issue of voting blocs. The residents of KJ are far more active in town politics than the residents of other parts of town. Per United Monroe, the aforementioned new political party, KJ voter turnout was at 65% and 57% over the last two town election cycles, compared with 33% and 25% among non-KJ voters. And because they are far more united in their support of candidates, whoever wins KJ wins the vote. This is simple math. But United Monroe is trying to change this. They are working hard to get voter participation up amongst non-KJ residents and to get them unified behind a single party. Hell, that is why United Monroe was created in the first place: they are a tri-partisan (the ticket features one Democrat, one Republican, and one Independent) coalition hoping to unite non-KJ residents against the KJ voting bloc.
Which, to me, sounds like the creation of just another voting bloc.
But don’t tell United Monroe that. They’re not a voting bloc. KJ is a voting bloc. UM simply represents the interests of all the people. Well, all the people who aren’t from KJ. Which, it seems, are all the people that matter.
Let me be clear… I do not agree with the politics or policies of the officials that KJ tends to support. I find many of their attempts (some successful, some not) at annexing land via friendly courts to circumvent zoning laws troublesome. I am concerned about the community’s unchecked growth and its impact on the local environment. I worry about such a sizable portion of the population having a very different relationship with the school system than the people whose children attend the schools in far greater numbers. I disagree with a number of things they seem to stand for. But… I also bristle at the way in which UM and other townspeople paint their efforts at participating in the democratic process.
What, exactly, are they doing that “corrupts” democracy? Because they vote? In high numbers? And around common interests they share? Isn’t that how it is supposed to work? Each side does what it can to rally the troops and whomever does the best job wins the day?
If so, why does UM and so many others engage in such ugly politicking? Why do they throw around the term “voting bloc” like it is a four-letter word while engaging in exactly the same form of political organization? How much of their willingness and ability to demonize the residents of KJ is because A) they are followers of a religious order most people don’t know about or don’t understand and B) they do not publicly advocate on their own behalf? Why does so much of the conversation sound less like what contemporary town politics ought to sound like and instead sounds like something out of a WWII propaganda film?
The residents of KJ are residents of Monroe and deserve to be treated as such. They are not the other. They are not some sinister cabal of puppet masters. If you disagree with their political beliefs and efforts, beat them at the ballot box fair and square. Come’on, Monroe… I really hope we are better than this.
For those more interested in Kiryas Joel and other related topics, Google will be thy friend. The Village has been involved in numerous lawsuits, some of which have reached the Supreme Court, and there have been a variety of articles over the past few years about KJ and other Satmar communities in the area (including those in Monsey, East Ramapo, and Williamsburg). I opted not to source every detail since all of the necessary info is a few mouse clicks away and I aimed for this piece to be more of a “man on the ground” type than hard hitting investigative journalism.