Political Season – Huzzah!

How can I not be excited! It it a political season and I am a political junky. Proudly as Democrats abroad, Jack and I voted in the New Jersey Primary absentee and early. Now, we get to vote again in the Pontelandolfo local election. Politics is in my DNA!

Rossella Mancini For City Council

Hoorah, we get to vote for Rossella Mancini, our cousin and the other force behind the Cooking in the Kitchens of Pontelandolfo program. Those of you that know my family or have followed me for a while, know that politics really is in our DNA. Tante anni fa, my nonno, with a group of other Italian immigrants, started the Flagtown-Hillsborough Democratic Club. My dad, John Guerrera, was a democratic icon in Somerset County, NJ, serving as Mayor of Hillsborough, on a variety of boards including the Board of Elections and Tax board, the Executive Director of the County organization and a political operative for many national and state wide campaigns.

Dad’s Head Shot for his Senate Run

That means when I was old enough to lick a stamp and close an envelope, I was involved in a bunch of political stuff too. It was addictive.

Politics in Pontelandolfo reminds me of the door to door campaigns that my Dad ran in the 1960s and 70s and that I ran in the 70’s and 80’s. It was a kinder gentler kind of campaigning and one that truly engaged the electorate. Here, campaigns by law are limited to 30 days. HEAR THAT USA ONLY 30 DAYS OF POSTERS, PHONE CALLS AND ADVERTISING. What a welcome change.

Rossella, accompanied by friends and family has been visiting homes, talking about the platform of her ticket and getting honest – historically they have been honest – responses. Here, folks will actually tell you they will vote for you, or if not, who they intend to vote for and why. I have been with her on some of these house calls and actually heard a pal of mine tell her that he liked her a lot but was voting for his other pal’s son. Talk about a divergence from the American system.

Having lived in Asbury Park, NJ before they changed the form of government, I sort of understand how it works here. Every 5 years, someone who wants to be sindaco – mayor – asks 10 people to join him/her on La Lista. The 10 people on the list could become the consiglio, council-people. Here is the rub – only 7 will serve. The other three spots will be comprised of the minoranza – people from the loosing tickets who were top vote getters for their ticket. Each of the voters in a city of 15,000 people or less – we have way less – only get to vote for one person. The cumulative total of all votes cast for people on one list, determines the winning list. Automatically that person who is denoted as sindaco becomes the mayor and the top 7 vote getters are on the council. The other three – out of luck. What does that mean? It means, if you want to have a seat at the table, you have to get more votes than other people on your ticket!

Now this is PC – voters in towns with more than 15,000 residents can vote for two people and one – by law – must be a woman! Huzzah! The law is called Quatarosa and recognizes how few women were represented in local government. It truly was an old boys club. The list that Rossella is on has three women on it.

There is another piece of the election that I find difficult to understand.  If I were a pazillionaire, I could swing an election. The most recent census says that Pontelandolfo has 2,288 residents, including children, and 3082 registered voters! WHAT!!!! That is 794 more voters than residents. Normally, about 1500 people – who are actual local residents – vote in local and federal elections. The rest of the registered voters could be young people working in other parts of the EU or some of the thousands of Pontelandolfese who immigrated to Waterbury, Connecticut or Montreal or Argentina. Shazam, it looks like they never purge the voter’s list. Absentee voting is not allowed. For a local election you have to physically be in Pontelandolfo, make your way to the polling place, write your candidate’s name in a blank and wander to the local bar or home to wait for the results.

What this literally means is, if I could charter a plane with my 500 best East Coast Pontelandolfese pals and they accepted my free ride so they could vote in the local election, one could change the outcome. Like I said, SHAZAM!

The other piece that is strange to us New Jersey voters, is that if a race is uncontested – only one list is formed – there is no election. Someone from a higher level of government will come in an appoint your officials. No uncontested elation’s here – even if second list is composed of smoke and mirrors.

There is so much I have to learn about politics, life, traditions and culture. Guess I need to hang out here for a few more years.  Meanwhile, this Sunday, I will be voting for Rossella Mancini for city council!

Ci vediamo! Vote early and often!

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People Vote for People – Politicking Pontelandolfo Style

I can’t really talk about politics without talking about the one guy who understood it best, made sure I understood it and got frustrated as hell when newbies to the process refused to listen.  Good old “Johhny G”, my dad Giovanni Francesco Guerrera, was a politician in the grand style of  former speaker  of the House of Representatives – Tip O’Neill.  “People vote for people.”  “All politics are local!” Those are the clear cut salient facts that my dad foisted upon me at a tender age.  Dad was one of the men who moved Hillsborough Township into the 2oth century.  He was Mayor and on the Township Committee for numerous terms in the 60’s and 70’s.  He was always involved in local, state and national campaigns – sending me to represent him once to a meeting in the Jimmy Carter Whitehouse – but that is another story.  His passion for politics was learned at his daddy’s knee – Pontelandolfo’s Francesco Guerrera.  My nonno, with other Italian immigrants, started Hillsborough’s Democratic Organization!  Whoops – let’s get back to today and personal politics.

Dad's head shot for a State Senate Run.
Dad’s head shot for a State Senate Run.

Yeah, yeah, we all care about issues, platforms, programs etc.  But the reality is, if you are my friend and I ask you to vote for me you will.   Just like we buy candy from our friends kids to support organizations we don’t particularly agree with – for me it is the Boy Scouts.  I hate the politics of the Boy Scouts but love the kids in my extended family who pound on my door in cub scout costumes – I mean uniforms selling candy.  So ethics be damned, I buy the candy.  See – people buy from people.

Daddy always said the way to win an election is like pyramid marketing – you get a core of folks who adore you for whatever reason – and get them to contact and pitch you to the friends who adore them for whatever reason.  People respond to people.

National and domestic issues are important but how does that break down to me, my family and my home town? Now you get it – think local.  Well, politics in Pontelandolfo is about as local centric as you can get.  It is time for me to stop thinking about my larger than life political pappa and tell you about Pontelandolfo.

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X marks the Sindaco circle!

The candidates actually go from house to house and talk to people!  How amazing!  No robo calls here just house calls.  That means you need a strong bladder, because at every house you have a caffè and conversation.  What really amazed me is that people actually told you if they would vote for you or not!  Having lived in Asbury Park, where if everyone who swore they voted for me really had I would have been Queen for a day, I was amazed that folks might actually deign to tell the truth.  “Hey, you’re my pal and I love you but I don’t like the guy at the top of your ticket so – sorry no can do!”  Remember from my earlier post, you vote for the Sindaco (mayor) and then write in one name from his ticket to be your choice for consigliere (council).  Check out the sample ballot – put an X in the circle for the Sindaco and write in one name. ( I did discover later that some folks had indeed told a wee lie to my cousin and really didn’t vote for her – but that was an anomaly.)

Lots of cars in the piazza means lots of folks are gathering in shops and the bars (cafés).
Lots of cars in the piazza means lots of folks are gathering in shops and the bars (cafés).

What people were talking about in the bars and around the piazza were the local problems that the commune has.  Some of these issues are indeed national – like there are no jobs for young people.  Others are very local and personal. This is beautiful village and yet some folks are dumping their garbage and nothing is being done to clean it up.  The elderly often can’t subsist on their incomes and something must be done to provide local support – or to petition the province for help.  The local library was something I witnessed and heard “Rocomincio Da Te” candidates talk about.  It needs books!  It needs to be perked up and better utilized.  Programs for young people are always an issue.  Are sports enough?  Should the commune increase arts based programs?  Each list of candidates distributed their platforms and spoke about issues like these.

Technology is not totally ignored in this very personal approach to campaigning.  Cars are outfitted with speakers and festooned with campaign posters.  A pre-recorded “Vote for XXXXX,” and  “Vote for the (insert name of ticket” could be heard blaring up and down the streets and barely streets of the country side.  At first I was taken aback – whoa is that an obnoxious gelato truck?  Well, there is no obnoxious gelato truck – what a gift that would be – but campaign aides rousing the voters.  The second time I heard it I went out on our balcony to see which ticket it was.  It was the one I was voting for so I waved and cheered.  Does the spirit good to see your team out and about.  Since Pontelandolfo has lots of small family farms and the families really are out working the fields and tending the animals, I could see the benefit of the mobile system.  Where I couldn’t see it was in bigger cities – where the blaring through the busy streets was constant.  If I lived in one I might be forced to wear earplugs or toss pomodori out the window.  Jack and I followed one rolling billboard and blaring sound system for about 20 minutes in a town that shall remain nameless.   Well – here see for yourself.

Politics Runs in the Family! Vote!!

Vote for Giusy Mancini!!!
Vote for Giusy Mancini!!!

Carmela generously invited us for pranzo yet again!  We don’t complain she is one of the best cooks I have ever encountered.  We were all eating and laughing – well they were laughing at my Italian – when the door burst open and Carmela’s youngest daughter, Giusy raced in screaming.  She was ranting so rapidly that  I couldn’t figure out if the dog had died, her car was in an accident or – what?  The what was something I never would have imagined.  As a matter of fact, I couldn’t believe it, she is running for “consigliere” which is like being on the city council.  Now in my New Jersey family, politics were a part of life.  My dad started running for office before my sister and I could even run.  We grew up licking stamps, banging on doors, smiling at creepy people and getting out the vote.  I’ve run for and sat on a school board.  Ran and lost a whopper of a city council race in Asbury Park and worked on numerous campaigns over the years.

What a kick in the bloodline connection to hear this beautiful 25 year old woman go on and on about shady campaigning.  It seems that the last mayor (Sindaco) had been re-elected for a second five year term when the council (consiglieri) decided they couldn’t work with him.  So they all up and resigned!  Just like that a change of government!   That meant another election had to be called – an out of cycle election.  Before I go on let me try to explain the basics of the system.  I sat down with Rossella ( our family avvocato) to get a quick lesson.

There are four levels of government – Federal (Governo Stato with two houses – Camera dei Deputati and Senato), Regional (President & Consiglio Regionale), Provincial ( President & Consiglio Provinciale) and local (Communale – Sindaco and  Consiglieri). The number of local council members (Consiglieri) depends on the size of the Comune.  I’m only going to talk about this local election – we have a cousin running and that makes this election important.

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Village Crest

The Sindaco (mayor) and her/his Six Consiglieri are elected every five years – man does that sound just like my old home town Asbury Park, NJ.  Originally the entire country had the local elections on the same two days (how civilized  – two days – one of which is a Sunday).  But as governments caved in and special elections had to be called the country suddenly found itself with elections happening all the time.  Back to Pontelandolfo –  the last six consiglieri walked and the Ministero dell’ Interno picked the date for the new election.  The village activists only had a scant few weeks to get tickets together.  The ticket formation is key.

The way local elections work in Italian towns is “all or nothing”.  The various political parties ( organizations) put someone up for Sindaco.  On the ballot you must vote for the party of the Sindaco and then write in just one name from the list of names below his/hers.  That list is called “la lista” and the people on the list are the people the newly elected Sindaco will choose from for his consiglieri.  You write the name of the one person you want  to be consigliere after you vote for the party/sindaco.  Who knew that “bullet voting” was a common sport in Italian politics!  If the Sindaco whose list a person is on wins and that person – hopefully my cousin Giusy – was the top vote getter on the list than the Sindaco has to name her a member of the consigliere.  The sindaco gets to pick four from his ticket.   This is the majority (maggiore) and then the Sindaco must pick the Sindaco candidate of top two vote garnering other lists. These two become the  consiglieri di minoranza.   This all means the top vote getters are set for five years – unless the consigliere decide the Sindaco is too stupid to live and they all resign.  Whew – it really is winning party take all.

The dilemma this particular Saturday was a typical scurrilous whisper whisper campaign tactic.  Folks are spreading the rumor that the old ousted mayor  supports the ticket that Giusy is on.  Since he was ousted, that doesn’t bode well for her group.   As Giusy went door to door asking for a vote for her group in general and herself in particular, she discovered this unwanted endorsement – not at one house but at many!

My immediate New Jersey political maven thought was – which one of the other groups started the rumor?  When I ran for city council in Asbury Park this pazzo woman ran around telling people that my sons and I were slum lords in Bradley Beach.  Strange rumor since A – I don’t have any kids and B – I only owned one house ever!  People just like to rattle the gossip chain. The conversation around the table was heated. The advice ranged from “let it go – who will believe him” to “confront him and tell him to stop”.  I was thinking more along the lines of sending out a flier that has the former Sindaco endorsing another group and really confusing everyone.  During the angst, I discovered that Rossella’s husband Pasquale is a consigliere of a neighboring town.  She married into another family with a history of political activity. When I heard that  I stuffed another vote into the ballot box for blood defining who we are.

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This is the Municipal Building.

The first year I had my Italian citizen ship, we happened to be in Pontelandolfo during a municipal election.   I actually gotten a post card alerting me to the election before we left Asbury Park.  When Jack and I visited Carmela and Mario I asked about the upcoming election and if I could vote.  They didn’t think I could but were supporting a “sindaco” – I had no idea what that meant, but of course I would vote for whoever they told me to vote for – I mean I did grow up in a political family and knew the drill.  They made a call and suddenly this man raced in, grabbed me, my Italian passport and dragged me to the municipal building.  I had no idea why.  At that time I spoke barely any Italian and just signed where he pointed.  The next thing I knew I had a document that allowed me to vote in my first Italian election.  The elections are very civilized – they are over two days – one of which is Sunday.  You have no excuse not to get to the polls. Besides with half of the town standing in front of the polling place going to vote is a social event.   I went in to the poll, handed in my certificate and was handed a paper ballot.  Now what?  I couldn’t read a thing, couldn’t ask a question and stood staring at the little cardboard dividers set up on tables.  Luckily, things are pretty relaxed and Annarita not only photographed my first vote but went to my “booth” with me.  All I had to do was put an X in the circle with the sindaco’s name and write my choice for consigliere (I had it written on my palm) on the line below; then fold it and yes – stuff it in the ballot box!  Since then, I have voted in a number of federal elections – absentee of course.

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Tessera Elettorale – Voting Card/Record

This year, knowing that I absolutely had to vote for Giusy, I went to the municipo with Rossella and asked the clerk myself for the necessary document to vote.  The election is May 26 & 27  . Stayed tuned for more election updates as nefarious plots and electioneering continue!