Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

To get in touch with Peter Marks, the GOP candidate in Princeton’s mayoral election this fall, I first had to call three different public institutions just to find his contact information. When I finally spoke with him, he seemed genuinely surprised. The first thing he said was that he was not interested in seeking political office.

Incumbent candidate mayor Liz Lempert is Marks’s opponent in this political race. Dressed in a sleek pantsuit, the Mayor welcomed me into her Witherspoon Street office. Through the window, I could see the fire department and a local tire shop. The mayor outlined her policy priorities as though there were no election this year, only occasionally mentioning the election itself.

Does this local mayoral race, seemingly devoid of drama, have any resonance with the worries and conflicts and sentiments we fixate on in this presidential election?

Characterized broadly, no. Marks is a proud, long-time Princetonian. He was born in 1954, after his parents met at the Princeton Theological Seminary. But after running for City Council twice in the past – and losing by a lot both times – he is just putting his name on the ballot to help his party (Republicans don’t win elections in Princeton, but that doesn’t mean they don’t run). Lempert will in all likelihood beat Marks – they agree on this, if little else – while the spectacle of the presidential contest is too close to make any clear prediction.

I suspected this local-national disconnect when I started interviewing the local politicians. But even as most Princeton policy concerns are hyper-local, I saw unexpected parallels with the Trump/Hillary race when interviewing the two mayoral candidates. Marks, with the worry that America is changing and the conviction that the Democrat status quo has forgotten one part of our population, expressed the same kind of discontent that Trump takes advantage of in his campaign. Mayor Lempert, like Hillary Clinton, talked past this disaffected group.

In terms of concrete action, Princeton politics are very local. When Lempert described her policy in our meeting – what she had achieved in her last term and what she will (read: hopes to) accomplish in the coming one – she talked about the consolidation of Princeton Borough with Princeton Township that began in 2011 and her goals to save tax dollars, enhance services, and make government more responsive. She said she wants to use the coming years to work on affordable housing; she hopes to build bike paths and collaborate with the University on sustainability. In our phone conversation, Marks critiqued Lempert on these local concerns with the logic of a mainstream Republican candidate. He would scrap mandatory union contracts and focus on shrinking the government and spending less. The unorthodoxly rowdy and intense disputes of the Hillary-Trump feud on the elephantine issues of national security and job outsourcing seem absent in the Princeton context.

But the sentiments that motivate those national disputes are actually still present on this local level.  When describing his concerns about the town, Marks expressed his frustration about outsiders encroaching on local residents: “It’s gotten to be fine to discriminate or have bias against long-time Princetonians,” Marks told me. “We’re championing people from the outside who would like to enjoy the Princeton lifestyle at someone else’s expense.”

I asked Marks to clarify the word “outsiders” and he specified: “If we’re talking more generally about the [Democratic] Party, they have a great concern for people who are here – I would say illegally, but they call them undocumented.” Princeton is in a part of New Jersey that has a significant undocumented population.[1] Marks claimed to dislike Lempert’s leniency towards undocumented residents – she has, along with fighting issues like wage-theft, made it clear to local police that they cannot ask for a resident’s papers when dealing with minor infractions. “It spawns content for the law and it’s not reasonable,” he said.[2] Marks is not an enthusiastic Trump supporter, but immigration is the main issue that will make him vote for Trump this November.

The mayoral candidate justified his resentment for the “outsider” with the idea that welcoming new people to Princeton comes at a cost for residents. Prices rise and, as the town expands, residents lose sight of the small town that Princeton once was. He called those who suffer, “the people in town who’ve lived here for years, who are struggling to stay in their houses and are watching their taxes climb inexorably.” He referred to the people who live between Walnut Lane and Harrison or north of Franklin and to older, white residents in particular; he thinks they receive “knee-jerk hostility” from the town’s Democrats.

This rhetoric of us vs. them – the idea that newcomers could jeopardize possibilities for the white middle class – calls upon a variety of Trumpisms relating to foreigners. While Trump’s discourse is certainly more extreme than Marks, both candidates recognize that this group fears a rapidly changing America. And in speaking to the future of Princeton, Marks pushed against the inevitability of that change:

“I’ve seen a lot of change here in town and I don’t think all of it is good,” he told me. “We have cities. For people who want cities I should think they could focus on Camden or Trenton or Newark and dozens of others in New Jersey. I don’t see why we need to create the same problems in Princeton. I don’t want to live in a laboratory, as a guinea pig in a social experiment.”

Lempert moves with the forward-rushing current. She recognizes the existence of the disaffected, of those who plan to vote for Marks or who have Trump signs on their front lawn. But her policy platforms – like the proposal for affordable housing available to anyone in the tri-state area – do not take into account this old, white Princeton resident who might want the town to remain as it was. When asked if he thinks there’s a group in Princeton that’s been forgotten by local politics, Marks answers with an emphatic yes.

His is a particular kind of nostalgia for a Princeton that no longer exists. It is, if you think about it, the exact sentiment in the Again that follows “Make America Great”.

[1] The statistics vary, but a 2008 report from the Migration Policy Insitute estimates that 16,000 people in Mercer County were undocumented Latino immigrants. Lempert recalled how bad the tension was between white and Latino residents when she first took office in 2012, giving me the example of a survey the police department organized to figure out community needs. “They received hundreds of responses, but they didn’t receive any response at all from the Latino community, even though the survey had been translated into Spanish, even though they had gone door to door with it,” Lempert told me. “It was clear that people were afraid to fill out this anonymous survey.”

[2] To clear up any confusion: Mayor Lempert is not actually spawning contempt for the law. Police have no legal responsibility to demand citizenship status or documents unless the offense is indictable. (It’s feds in Immigration and Customs Enforcement who have that job).