While studying urban planning and policy development in USA, as a Ford Foundation Fellow, my major focus was to understand the integration of city planning, public policy, and democratic politics with concentration in community development, thereby making a balance of subject choices to meet the goal. In the subject course Policy Making at Eagleton Institute of Politics, I got the chance to interview Mr. J.F. McKeon, New Jersey Assemblyman.
In order to have a firsthand information and face-to-face meet with the Legislator, we made an appointment to visit him in his district office. It was a rainy day and my colleague made my visit comfortable by driving to the legislator's office from Newark city.
We decided to visit legislator's office 15 minutes earlier so that we could gather some advance information from the staff and create a personal congenial environment in order to accomplish the task. The two of the staff members present were Lloyd L. Naideck, legislative Director and Ronald P. Botelho, Chief of Staff. Gita Bajaj, a journalist of Indian origin was press secretary in the Assembly Majority Office who is on deputation to legislator's district office. Ronald has educational background in law and therefore is significant in dealing with legislative issues and language of the legal matter. On the other hand, Lloyd has a background in political science, therefore very useful in political campaigns. Lloyd's typical day is reading news packet from Office of Legislative Service(OLS), check legislative websites, research bills: OLS, self and information from McKeon depending on the topic, focusing on responses from constituents and check legislative digest of dropped bills, focus on legislation for sponsorship or co-sponsorship, receive field calls and keep track of political happenings within the district.
The district has three legislators having offices in their constituencies at distinct locations which cover the whole district to serve efficiently to their constituents. They only visit the capital of the state on the days of legislative meetings. The district size is about 225-240K and is considered a swing district with 53% on democratic performance index. Currently Assemblywoman Mila M. Jasey and Senator Richard J.Codey are other two legislators. McKeon and Codey have past relationship because of being colleagues. Their offices are maintained by the government in terms of rent, furniture and other expenses while as each legislator receives $110,000/per annum to run the office. It is his/her discretion to employ the number of persons in the office or even to do the work himself/herself within this budget.
In the beginning, we had a conversation with Llyod and sought some information about the way office functions. He said that it is very difficult to run the office with just 2-3 people. About McKeon, he described the assemblyman as a delegator in contrast to his district mate Jasey who spends a lot of time in the district office due to the fact that she is a retired person. As per Lloyd's statement, McKeon has his law office close by and therefore, he can be at the district office in minutes. McKeon seeks suggestions from constituents, staff, lobbyists and runs after the issue himself because the majority offices usually refer problems to the district office as most of the cases fit into the legislator's profile. Lloyd gave detailed information about the office work and said that constituents reach out to them by various means i.e.; 80% emails, 10% phone calls and very few walk-ins and mostly these walk-ins are for notary applications. People reach out to them because it seems the last resort for a problem with a government agency, a court decision and many are caught up in family disputes. 25% of the legal advice is provided so that they are comfortable and relaxed but the office generally refers them to the proper agency i.e.; Legal services of New jersey. Ronald mostly tries to interpret but does not advise and keeps the options open ended. Some people call mostly because of special interest to know the office position on a piece of legislation. As per Lloyd's statement, they try to expedite the process of the constituent's problem and seek facts but cannot help with something that they are not already entitled to because of ethics code. About groups who reach out to their office, some of the names given are i) NJ Environmental Federation, ii) Sierra Club, iii) Environment New Jersey, iv) Audubon Society and iv) Garden State Equity (1/3 of their membership is in this district). On asking about, how the district offices reaches out to constituents, Lloyd said that people can access the state website and the office sends out information regarding a particular issue by mail. The campaign has a website and sends information during that period and the office follows ethical guidelines during the campaign period. That is to say that an issue can be discussed but cannot a) solicit for voter and b) send out information on an issue and campaign within 90 days of an election. About current issue, Lloyd said New Jersey Assembly Bill# 2586 (Senate Bill# 1534) would exempt private colleges and universities from any kind of municipal land use oversight and from requirements for compliance with local zoning codes under the Municipal Land Use Law, eliminate the kind of careful review that municipal planning boards and boards of zoning adjustment conduct when evaluating land use applications and accrue more rather than less, conflict between private universities and the municipalities in which they are located.
Ronald is leaving the job in the next few months in order to practice law. The conversation with him was brief as most of the talking had already been done with Lloyd. Ron said that complaints by constituents are usually directed towards an issue and calls are made by them before an issue and not after. He said office collects information about the issue and during breaks in legislative sessions they give responses to correspondence because of workload dedicated to legislation as the $110k is a limitation. The only money that comes to the office from constituents is for applications for notarizing documents. The office works on a nonpartisan basis and same level of service is provided regardless of constituent's party affiliation.
At last, as agreed upon through appointment, the assemblyman John McKeon made up his promise. He entered the district office just as we had almost finished our talk with the office staff. When asked to describe about himself, McKeon said that he separates public life from his private life. He is a partner of a law firm that operates at three locations in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. His public service career consists of town council (west orange) for 6 years, mayor for 12 years (3 terms with no limits), reform candidate during mayoral run. While discussion, McKeon said that he tried to change the form of government at the time. He ran for assembly in 2002 when there was an open seat ( district mates were senator Richard Codey and assemblyman Mims Hackett). He chaired the Environment and Solid Waste Committee for 10 years and worked on water preservation, land use, green acres, recycling etc. He claimed legislative victory for 4% cap (and later 2%) on property tax increases and initiatives not passed but dear to him were funding for autism research and stem cell research. Another thing that he wish he could have passed is funding increase for Garden State Preservation Trust Fund which includes green acres (open space), blue acres (water front) and Farmland subsidy.
When asked a question about as to what made him run for the Assembly, he said that he liked the idea of serving in legislature that governs 9 million people and was always interested in public service and was better placed in his legal career which provided him a certain amount of independence. Being mayor helped him including previous experience and understands impact of initiatives that were being considered i.e.; 4% cap on property tax.
When asked about the problems of constituents (i.e.; things they are asking for, questions they need answers to etc.) versus your policy views, McKeon said their problems are mostly due to bureaucracy of the government and on policies, they lack understanding. About what constituents want the most, he said that they want him to advocate the issue and vote for their position. To another question about the support from constituents, assemblyman said that high profile issues get high support and most of the issues tend to get little support apart from lobbyists who tend to reach out our office for most of the issues. On a personal note, McKeon was asked whether he treats himself to be a trustee or a delegator, to which the assemblyman replied that he feels more of a trustee as he reflects the core values of his constituents and makes efforts to be nonpartisan. Time is always a big issue for public servants and it becomes doubly cumbersome when the person is involved in multiple functions. When asked, how he divides his time in such a hectic schedule, John McKeon said that he heavily relies on his staff for their efficiency and promptness, thereby enjoys variety of his responsibilities and arranges commitments as efficiently as possible. e.g.; he was scheduled for 4 engagements with 3 in the same town all along nearby the same main thoroughfare. Apart from this, his career choice of being an attorney provides the advantage of flexible scheduling.
The assemblyman seemed to be knowledgeable, witty and very professional. He was keen on answering all questions without hesitation. When asked what is the best way for a constituent to get his attention to which the legislator said that they need to call his office where staff will respond to their specific queries and will also follow-up calls apart from follow-up on letters and emails. A constant interaction takes place through office bearers in order to achieve end results. The office deals equally with fairness with all people.
During the last stage of interview with the Assemblyman, he was asked about strategy for re-election and particularly the redistricting impact. He said that due to redistricting (Prof. Alan Rosenthal was responsible for redistricting who passed away on 10th July, 2013), this district is now more competitive, with no urban component to his district as was in the past and the strategy is to build up credibility among voters. There has been a shift in the constituent's priorities e.g.; education policy; funding for the Abbot schools. Most of the district is affluent; therefore the issue of funding Abbot schools does not rank high with them.
The Assemblyman was patient in answering our queries and we kept on drilling something out of him to understand in full context and as such asked McKeon whether he has been abroad and if he draws any inspiration outside US. He said, he has visited Israel once and Europe twice apart from Mexico. He said in Germany, if you do not want to donate your organs after you are deceased, you must opt out which means that it would shorten the lists for persons looking for donors and speed the donation process along. He further said that he reads about policy issues from abroad and communicates with first generation Americans who provide ideas. He often goes to cultural events.
McKeon further said that policy is driven by power players and is built on compromise with so many differing positions, industries and stakeholders. The district was decidedly more democrat prior to recent redistricting and culminated into a swing district. Therefore he prefers to make laws around coalitions considering other stakeholders. Hope, our politicians learn from this experience.
The writer studied at Edward J. Bloustein School of Urban Planning & Public Policy, Rutgers University. The ideas in the conversation expressed are author's own and not of organization he works for or of university where he studied.