To borrow from Shakespeare’s Mercutio: “A plague on both your houses.” That is my read on how voters in the Township of Mahwah viewed two of the candidates, incumbents Mayor William “Bill” Laforet and Council President Rob Hermansen, in last Tuesday’s election, in which both individuals lost their respective seats.
These two elections had nothing to do with party lines; they had nothing to do with the standard issues upon which local municipal races are typically run. The undertones of this race were very simple and were being monitored across the region and beyond. This race was largely defined by where one fell on the discriminatory actions against their neighboring Jewish community taken by the majority of the governing body last year.
In one corner, Mr. Hermansen, as council president, delineated the council’s legislative agenda and was the individual responsible for overseeing the divisive public meetings. It was under his authority that each of the discriminatory ordinances that came before the council was allowed to be authored, edited and voted on by the governing body. Let us also remember that when I and others first came to Mahwah council meetings to discuss the actions that the township was debating, it was this individual who took every possible action to stifle my comments and those of many others—even as they were our right to provide in public per the Open Public Meetings Act, which is state law. The discriminatory actions against the eruv and public parks restrictions were of deep concern to the larger Jewish community and at that point we simply wanted our perspective to be heard.
Let us remember how record-breaking crowds of literally hundreds of town residents—so many people that, at times, overflow rooms had to be provided for this municipality of just over 26,000—came to witness the spectacle. Shockingly, Mr. Hermansen, before my very eyes, and purposely recorded for evidence and posterity, demonstrated his willingness to interrupt, harass and censor the words of Holocaust survivors, the president of the Bergen County NAACP (and recently elected as Bergen County’s sheriff, Anthony Cureton) and many other fair-minded and inclusive community leaders and elected officials when they dared to even utter the words “perception of anti-Semitism” in relation to the council’s proposed ordinances.
By the same token, let it be remembered that while the above occurred, members of the dais quietly nodded and allowed additional speaking time to a leader of a Mahwah community group who claimed that the Holocaust survivor was a fraud and nothing more than a paid actor. This was followed by another meeting that welcomed the testimony of a women who warned about the potential infestation of Jews into the town if the council didn’t continue on its course.
In the opposing corner was Mayor Laforet, the only member of the governing body to stand up and voice his open opposition to the council’s behavior and legislation at meeting after meeting, immediately incurring the wrath, voiced in continuous boos and jeers, from those residents who had been his longtime neighbors, friends and constituents. Mayor Laforet, whom the Simon Wiesenthal Center honored at this past year’s Heroes for Tolerance event, courageously and knowingly put himself and his family in extremely precarious
positions because he simply called out what he saw was wrong. Mayor Laforet is also a longtime business owner in the town, and even as threats abounded about boycotting his Sunoco Gas establishment, his very livelihood, he pushed forward unconcerned about his pecuniary interests.
At council meeting after council meeting, Mr. Hermansen called for no confidence votes to be levied against the mayor, and had them successfully passed. Mr. Hermansen talked about supporting recall elections against the mayor for his actions, and time and again insultingly berated Mr. Laforet for his public positions that attempted to stop the unlawful ordinances from moving forward.
After many months of such behavior, residents had grown tired of the lack of decorum and what was happening to the reputation of the township regionally and beyond. It is understandable that the people of Mahwah simply wanted a new day, but by recalling Mayor Laforet, they threw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.
Many would tell me that what happened at those very disturbing council meetings was not a microcosm of the township as a whole and did not represent the larger population. While it is incumbent upon us to fight any level of discrimination, I hoped in my heart of hearts that when the average person in Mahwah had an opportunity to evaluate what had transpired, when they now had the benefit of realizing that the New Jersey State Attorney General successfully filed and forwarded a proportionally monumental lawsuit charging the governing body with anti-Semitism and outright discrimination, the courage of the mayor would be validated and appreciated. Alas, we see that was not the case as Mahwah voted simply to rid itself of the entire episode.
I hope and pray that at least the new leadership in Mahwah’s governing body will study the recent past and that they will realize who was in the right. I hope that they will in time recognize what has indeed happened, how the rest of the state and many others, nationwide, viewed Mahwah over the last two years. I hope this realization will lead to an open door for dialogue and healing between residents of Mahwah and the Jewish community and with every other community that was offended in this episode.
One thing is clear. Individuals such as Mr. Laforet should aspire to positions of leadership and those who stood against hateful rhetoric in Mahwah were true leaders. They can help us and our nation oppose hate and, together, build a more tolerant society.
By Michael Cohen
Michael Cohen, an Englewood councilman, is the eastern director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.