By Dennis “DJ” Mikolay
If politics is anything, it is divisive. Ask any voter and they will tell you that America’s partisan divide is arguably stronger than ever with Republicans and Democrats often failing to find common ground. Over the last several years, the tensions in Washington have mounted to debilitating levels, leaving many completely disillusioned with the political process and unable to invest confidence in elected officials.
This epidemic of cynicism and disenchantment may be commonplace, but the hostilities usually directed at Washington DC, where voters feel unrepresented by those they sent to the capitol, isn’t widespread at the local level, at least not in Middletown. Just ask Stephanie Murray, the newly appointed Deputy Mayor and self-described “cheerleader” for Middletown Township, home to some sixty-six thousand residents.
A staunch fiscal conservative, Deputy Mayor Murray and the other members of the Township Committee believe they have earned the respect of Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike, an impressive accomplishment in an era when party labels often pre-determine public sentiment. Murray thinks the secret to overcoming such divisiveness is the willingness of voters to break with their usual party labels at the municipal level, where the elected officials are recognized as neighbors, personal friends, and members of the community.
“Locally, it’s different,” said Murray. “When you’re voting locally, you are voting for people you know. It’s something much closer to your home.”
It is this proximity and mutual co-dependence with the constituency that assures the municipal governing style remains very different than at the national level.
“It would be easy to sit in an office somewhere and make decisions for people you never met,” Murray joked. “But every time we [the Township Committee] look at something, I think: ‘if this is a dollar out of my pocket, then it’s a dollar out of my neighbor’s pocket!’”
Neighborly respect sets Middletown politics aside from other locations; at least that’s how Murray, a native New Yorker who grew up in a concrete jungle full of faceless strangers, sees things. When she first ventured to the Garden State in search of a new home, a journey that occurred over a decade ago, Murray wanted to move somewhere with an illustrious history, natural beauty and a true sense of camaraderie. She fell in love with Middletown Township and likely would have been content to simply enjoy her new surroundings had she not been jolted into a newfound sense of activism. The catalyst for this new mission? She had just moved into her new home when the September 11th attacks shook the world, forever changing the course of human history. In this new, uncertain, and apparently dangerous America, Murray sought a way to become more closely involved with her neighbors, a means of solidifying the ties with those around her.
“I really wanted to get involved in my community,” said Murray, who noted that her involvement was originally not political. As fate would have it, as the years progressed, she became increasingly involved in local government. Now a familiar face and permanent fixture in the township, she turned her attention towards elected office. Though Murray didn’t become actively involved in partisan politics until 2008, making her a relative latecomer to the local Republican Party, her staunch fiscal conservatism made her a natural successor to Committeewoman Pamela Brightbill, who announced she wouldn’t seek re-election in 2011. Murray sought Brightbill’s seat, was elected to the Township Committee, and after serving for a year, was appointed Deputy Mayor.
Murray described the first twelve months in office as “a baptism by fire,” and though she thought she knew what to expect, the reality of public life is very different than anything imaginable. She was, after-all, a witness to Hurricane Sandy, one of the most tragic and destructive natural disasters in the state’s recent history. The storm, which ravaged the Jersey Shore and Raritan Bay, leveled homes and left thousands without power. And yet what could have very easily escalated to pandemonium became an inspiring show of unity, an opportunity for diverse segments of the Middletown community to come together and care for each other.
“It was such a tremendous effort,” said Murray, who was impressed that the very community that had initially drawn her to Middletown rallied together during those most trying weeks. But the new Deputy Mayor hopes this sense of kinship can be kept alive throughout the year and hopes to work towards establishing a thought provoking dialogue about our heritage.
“Community is something I would like to highlight more,” Murray explained. “This town is vast, but the one thing we have in common is our history. Middletown is arguably one of the first settlements in New Jersey and that’s our heritage, so it can unify us!”
To friends and those who know her, Stephanie Murray is the perfect fit for the position of Deputy Mayor. But there are, of course, people who are unfamiliar with Murray’s history and views, and it is for those people that she states in no uncertain terms what everyone familiar with her already knows:
“I love this town,” said Murray, who notes that she praises Middletown so often that, “I sound like a cheerleader sometimes.”