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Christie faces ‘uphill battle’ in blue-law fight

Blue law advocates and detractors criticized Gov. Chris Christie’s plans, announced last week, to repeal Bergen County’s blue laws limiting businesses on Sunday, in order to boost state tax revenue.

The governor suggested the plan as part of a $29.3 billion 2011 budget that includes caps on property taxes and cuts to hundreds of state programs. Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak told The Jewish Standard that repealing the blue laws would require legislative approval but would result in an additional $65 million in tax revenues for the cash-strapped state.

Christie “has no philosophical support for shopping on Sundays,” Drewniak said. “It was merely a practical recognition of potential revenues.”

The announcement drew a storm of criticism from Bergen County, even from those who support loosening the Sunday shopping restrictions. State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), who ran on the Democratic ticket for lieutenant governor in last year’s election, said Christie made “a rookie mistake” in thinking he can gain support to repeal the Sunday restrictions.

“Blue laws can’t be wished away,” she said. “There is a law on the books that it can only be done by county-wide referendum.”

Bergen is the only one of New Jersey’s 21 counties that still maintains the restrictions.

In 2002, then-Assemblywoman Weinberg tried to advance a bill for individual communities in the county to opt out of the laws, but she was met with fierce opposition in the form of thousands of e-mails and voice messages.

“It’s one of the few issues I’ve ever dropped,” Weinberg said. “The telephones were so overwhelmed, the staff couldn’t work here.”

Elie Y. Katz, a Teaneck councilman and former township mayor, experienced a similar backlash in 2006 when he tried to push a referendum that would allow towns to opt out.

“It’s certainly not going to be a cakewalk for the governor,” Katz said. “Based on my personal experience as mayor and Sen. Weinberg’s experience as assemblywoman, the governor’s got a real uphill battle.”

At the heart of the issue, according to Bergen County Executive Dennis McNerney, is the quality of life for county residents. During a telephone interview on Tuesday, McNerney accused Christie of trying to raise the taxes of Bergen residents, who would foot the bill for the effects of Sunday shopping.

“There’d be more traffic,” McNerney said. “That means more police, more first responders, higher property taxes, and a deterioration in the quality of life for many residents.”

McNerney also lambasted Christie’s plan to open the Xanadu shopping center in East Rutherford, still under construction, for Sunday shopping.

McNerney accused the governor of creating “an artificial crisis” and questioned his anticipated revenue of $65 million. Weinberg also questioned the figure’s source.

Drewniak in the governor’s office had no answer when asked about the figure’s origin.

Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer, a columnist for this paper and an outspoken critic of the blue laws, criticized Christie’s budget proposals, which include many cuts to education services, but praised the governor for attempting to tackle the blue laws.

“Overall the governor’s budget proposals, especially in the area of education, will destroy New Jersey,” he said. “In this one instance, I think he’s finally doing something smart.”

The North Jersey Board of Rabbis, of which Engelmayer is the former president, has come out in support of allowing individual towns to opt out of the blue laws. The board has also taken issue with Saturday-only sales, citing discrimination against Shabbat-observers and Seventh Day Adventists, who also observe a Saturday Sabbath. The board favors creating a voucher system that would allow Saturday Sabbath-observers to receive the discounts from Saturday-only sales on the following Monday.

“It would be a fair approach, especially since some of the Saturday-only sales are not really Saturday-only,” he said. “They’re weekend sales but because there’s no Sunday [shopping, they are Saturday only].”

The governor faces a June 30 deadline to complete the 2011 budget. McNerney and other county Democrats have been organizing press conferences and other protests, and, according to McNerney, they have attracted scores of supporters through the Internet.

Repealing the blue laws does have the support of business-owners, Drewniak said, but Christie is aware of “some public opposition” to lifting the restrictions and he will work with legislators to determine if repealing them is the best move.

The governor is “also looking for other ideas on replacing that $65 million,” Drewniak said. “We don’t want to backtrack from balancing a budget.”

 
 

Muslim mayor and Jewish deputy highlight Teaneck’s diversity

Teaneck has long been on the frontlines of diversity. In the 1960s it was the first town in America to integrate its schools. It is home to more than 20 synagogues, more than 30 kosher restaurants, and a large mosque, which led The New York Times several years ago to dub it “the Jerusalem of the West.”

And last week, the township council appointed New Jersey’s first Muslim mayor. His pairing with an Orthodox Jewish deputy mayor is reportedly a first in the country.

Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin has been on the council since 2008, while Deputy Mayor Adam Gussen won re-election to his second four-year term in May. The pair’s relationship, however, goes back to their days at Ben Franklin Middle School.

“It was sports,” Hameeduddin said. “That would be the first thing everybody did.”

The two became friends playing pick-up games of basketball, and later started a volleyball team in a Teaneck High fund-raiser tournament. During their junior and senior years, their team — named Volleyball Marathon Champs their senior year — came in second place.

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Deputy Mayor Adam Gussen, left, and Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin

“We had our eye on the prize and we weren’t going to settle for less,” Gussen said.

The two eventually wound up at Rutgers University together, and the friendship continued. In 2006, after Gussen won his first term on the council, he noticed that several of the Teaneck planning boards had vacancies. Leaders of Hameeduddin’s mosque had been discussing expansion and land-use issues with the town, so Gussen encouraged his friend to run for the planning board. Hameeduddin ran, won, and served during the contentious debate over the township’s master plan to redevelop the Cedar Lane area.

“How I conducted myself in the Master Plan process built friendships with the mayor and others,” Hameeduddin said. “If you can’t compromise, then there is no democracy.”

In 2008, Hameeduddin ran for council in what many deemed a controversial election marred by uproar over the firing of two elderly black poll workers, perceived anti-Semitic comments by another candidate, and furor over a slate promoted by Councilman Elie Y. Katz. Hameeduddin was the only member of that slate to win election.

Teaneck has its issues with race and religion, but Hameeduddin praised the township for putting them aside when it matters most.

“The people who would vote against me wouldn’t vote against me because I’m Muslim,” he said. “They’d vote against me because of my politics.”

Hameeduddin pointed out that he and Gussen have disagreed on matters of policy. Hameeduddin voted to fire former Township Manager Helene Fall, while Gussen voted against firing her. Gussen supports repealing the blue laws, while Hameeduddin supports the restrictions.

“Teaneck did its job in creating an environment where Mohammed and Adam become friends — that childhood friendship goes through a lifetime, and then we can sit down as adults 25 years later and talk about commonalities we have,” Gussen said. “We can respect each other’s differences. That’s based on trust and mutual respect.”

“Politics by its very nature is divisive,” Hameeduddin said. “People need to disagree without being disagreeable.”

The pair have their work cut out for them. According to state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), the township lost millions in funding from Gov. Chris Christie’s budget cuts.

While the combination of a Muslim mayor and Jewish deputy mayor may be unique throughout the country, it’s par for the course in Teaneck, according to Weinberg, a township resident.

“We’re used to living in our diverse community — to us it’s not such a giant leap forward,” she said. “We’ve had an African-American mayor, an Asian-Indian mayor. I’m happy to say that while many other people think it’s unique, I don’t think we do.”

 
 
 
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