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NAACP Cape chapter president to step down to run for Middle Committee

For The Press

MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Months after being voted president of the Cape May County chapter of the NAACP, Quanette Vasser-McNeal has launched a campaign for Township Committee, seeking to become the only Democrat on what is currently a Republicans-only men’s club.

Should she get elected, Vasser-McNeal would also be one of few females and the first Black woman elected to the Committee.

Vasser-McNeal won the support of the Cape May County Democratic Committee and the Middle Township Democratic Club, which backed her candidacy in a virtual meeting in February.

She said members of the party have approached her in the past about running for office, but while raising her family and working, she did not have the time to run an effective campaign. Her children are grown now, she said, and the climate of the world right now has convinced her to run.

“Where I am in life, who I am right now, it just feels like the right time,” she said.

She will face off against Republican incumbent Theron “Ike” Gandy, who received the unanimous endorsement of the Middle Township Regular Republican Organization to seek a second term on the Township Committee in February.

The deadline for filing has passed, so there will be no challenge for either candidate in the June primary.

With three members on Township Committee each serving a three-year term, Middle Township has a seat on the local government up for election every year.

Democrats had a lock on Middle Township government for decades, but that shifted with the elections of former Mayor Dan Lockwood and current Mayor Tim Donohue. Lockwood was the first Republican mayor in Middle Township in more than 70 years when he took the post in 2012.

The majority has changed since then, but Gandy tipped things back to the GOP with his election in 2018, with James Norris making it unanimously Republican when he took office in 2020.

Asked about Vasser-McNeal, Gandy said he wishes her well.

“I take my hat off to anybody who steps up to the plate,” he said. “May the best person win.”

In an announcement about his campaign, Gandy said his family has deep roots in Cape May County.

“I love Middle Township and want to help make it the best it can be for my family and every family that lives here,” Gandy said. “In 2020, we came together like never before. I’m proud to serve such good people and would be honored to continue the good work we have accomplished in the last few years.”

Gandy and his family live in the Swainton section of the township.

He cited his work as the commissioner overseeing public works, construction and zoning for the office. He has been a small business owner and is a foreman for Carpenters Union Local 255.

“Like many in our town, I spent time out of work in 2020. It’s been a very tough year for our small businesses,” Gandy said in a campaign release. “I believe we have to commit to an all-out effort to create responsible economic development that gives real hope to our working class families for a better future.”

Vasser-McNeal also has local roots. Her grandfather Jack Vasser was Cape May County’s first Black mayor in 1977. He was a member of the West Cape May Board of Commissioners, also a three-member governing body, from 1973 until 2001.

“I spent my childhood on the farm. On the trash truck,” Vasser-McNeal said. “From a very early age, I learned about work. I remember sitting on the porch with him as he went through his masses of mail.”

Those formative years helped shape her sense of community and of public service, she said, even if she did not fully understand what her grandfather did.

“I knew he was important. I knew he played a significant role,” she said. In a recent interview, she said she wants to help people and sees herself as a leader. In addition to her work with the NAACP, she is also involved with Habitat for Humanity, the Middle Township Law Enforcement Engagement Committee and the county prosecutor’s Social Justice Committee.

She will have to step down from her post with the NAACP during the election. The country’s oldest civil rights organization is strictly nonpartisan.

“I will be stepping aside,” she said. What happens after the election will depend on the results, and the members of the organization.

If elected, she would be the lone Democrat on the committee. She would also be the third female ever elected to Township Committee and the first Black woman on the governing body, according to local political observers.

In the 1980s, Patricia Peterson was a member of the Middle Township committee.

Susan Atkinson DeLanzo was elected to committee in 2001, reelected in 2004 and 2007, then named mayor in 2010. She was the first female mayor in Middle Township.

In 2013, Melanie Collins, a Black woman, ran unsuccessfully as a Republican against Michael Clark.

“I’m a team player,” Vasser-McNeal said. “I believe that a collaborative community team is necessary,” she said. “I would hope that we can work together.”

She added that she wants to see greater diversity in government at every level.

“I believe that Middle Township Committee members should be more representative of the community they serve,” she said. “Without the diversity of representation, there are members of the community who don’t feel their voices are heard, or their needs are being met.”


Education
top story
New NJ center providing national framework for arts and social emotional learning in schools

A chance meeting at an education workshop four years ago has turned into a national resource for incorporation of social and emotional learning into school art curricula.

Last month, Arts Ed NJ launched The Center for Arts Education and Social Emotional Learning, a virtual resources for educators and artists.

“Around the country, now other states are using our framework to inform the work that they’re doing,” Arts Ed NJ Director Bob Morrison said. “As a result, we found ourselves in the unintended position of being a national leader of arts education and SEL.”

Morrison said that marrying the two was a natural step.

“This process began when I saw Dr. Maurice Elias from Rutgers do a keynote address at the New Jersey School Boards Association annual workshop in 2017, and he was talking about social emotional learning in schools, character development and the need to address the whole child,” Morrison said. “As he was talking, everything he was saying was resonating with me from an arts education standpoint even though he wasn’t talking about the arts.”

Following the address, Morrison spoke with Elias, a professor and director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab, and the collaboration began.

“In every era, there are moments of tremendous clarity, when forces converge and something new, dynamic, and necessary emerges. Once it arrives, people wonder, ‘why has this not happened before?’” said Elias. “The arrival of the Center for Arts Education and SEL is just such a moment, and it brings with it the synergy of arts education and SEL. ArtsEdSEL will carry this partnership and mobilize the research, policies, and practices that will encourage all students to be socially-emotionally intelligent arts contributors and consumers.”

According to the New Jersey Department of Education, Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is an educational concept that encourages students to develop healthy identities, make good decisions, manage emotions, achieve goals, feel and show empathy, and establish and maintain healthy relationships.

When the state of New Jersey began to revise its learning standards for arts education in 2019, Morris said he and his collaborators began to create the framework for incorporating social and emotional learning in the arts curricula, which was released in 2020 and became available to the public through the new Center.

North Carolina, Arizona, Wisconsin and Texas have embedded the framework into their policies, and school districts and nonprofits from Los Angeles to Connecticut are also using it, he said.

The Center for Arts Education and Social Emotional Learning team is led by Morrison, who serves as executive director; Scott N. Edgar, director of practice and research; Yorel Lashley, director of student empowerment; and Kira Rizzuto, director of programs and partnerships.

The center will focus on providing professional development, collaboration, lesson planning, curriculum building, policy making, and amplifying student voice, as well as research.

Morrison said student voice is one of the most critical components.

“This is about the students themselves, what their thoughts are, their feelings are, how do we engage them in a way that allows them get a sense of belonging,” he said. “That’s critical as we come out of this COVID environment.”

Following in the footsteps of Arts Ed NJ, the new Center will also be virtually based. Morrison said that funding is coming from a variety of sources, but it was the seed money provided through a grant from the NJ Arts and Culture Recovery fund that made the center possible.

While the framework and certain professional development will be free to access, Morrison said the Center will provide in-district support services for a fee.

To learn more about ArtsEdSEL, visit https://artsedsel.org. For more information about Arts Ed NJ, visit https://www.artsednj.org.

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Local
top story
Rubble is all that is left of the 64-year-old Absecon Firehouse

ABSECON — The 46 members of the volunteer fire department here have a new $5.9 million firehouse to enjoy, but that does not mean they will not miss 64-year-old firehouse on New Jersey Avenue that was torn down last week.

“We all miss this building,” Fire Chief Roy Talley said. “It’s sad, but times go on.”

Sakoutis Brothers Demolition, out of Farmingdale, Monmouth County, started the demolition last week. By the end of the week, no walls were left standing.

The metals used in building construction were on the ground, separated from the plaster and other construction materials.

The mural of both the history of the fire department and the history of the city was painted on the Route 30 side of structure, but the mural could not be saved, Talley said.

“There was resistance to the new firehouse,” Talley said. “We didn’t want to move.”

Deputy Chief Dale Conover said he was part of the process during the 1980s of building one of several additions onto the building.

The firehouse that was torn down was at least the fourth in the city’s history, Talley said. Firehouses were located during the 1910s on Station Avenue and during the late 1930s at the old City Hall building. A firehouse also was once located on Bayview Drive, where the Atlantic Lodge No. 221 Free & Accepted Masons building is located.

Local firefighters approached the city to have the New Jersey Avenue building constructed in 1954, Talley said. The money was approved to the build it the following year, and the firehouse was constructed over two years, 1956 and 1957.

All of the city firefighters remember the horsing around and camaraderie that were part of the old firehouse, but the widening of Route 9 during the 1990s started to make the building obsolete because when fire trucks had to leave the building, they were pulling out into an intersection, Talley said. Two fire trucks could not leave at the same time.

“The roof was leaking. There was mold. It was an unhealthy building,” said Talley, who added a Royal Farms convenience store will be built at the site of the former firehouse.

One of the things saved from the old firehouse was some of the interior cedar wood. It will be installed in certain areas of the new firehouse as a tribute wall, Talley said.

Before the decision was made to build a new firehouse on New Jersey Avenue, near its intersection with Mill Road, there was talk of putting it in the old Staples building on Route 30, but that would have been too far from the city’s center, Talley said.

“The city needs a building to protect the town,” said Talley, who was talking from the site of the old firehouse while the new firehouse was in sight at 544 New Jersey Ave. “This new building is an asset to attracting new firefighters.”

Even though the city has volunteer firefighters, they have to do the same type of training as paid firefighters, said Ed Vincent, who was the fire chief from 1989 to 1995 and remains an active fire department member. The training room in the new firehouse is about the same size as the one in the old building, but with a higher ceiling, Talley said.

“The new building is beautiful,” said Talley, who added the firefighters kept the taxpayers in mind and only asked for what they thought was acceptable.

Depending on when the pandemic-related limitations to indoor gathering are lifted, there are plans to possibly hold a small, invitation-only celebration of the new firehouse before the year is over, followed by a public commemoration sometime next year, Talley said.

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GALLERY: Demolition of former Absecon firehouse

National
AP
For Chauvin's trial attorney, it's all about raising doubt

MINNEAPOLIS — Derek Chauvin’s defense attorney was questioning George Floyd’s girlfriend about the couple buying drugs when he abruptly shifted gears for what seemed an innocuous question: He presumed the couple had pet names for each other. Under what name, he asked, did she appear in Floyd’s phone?

Courteney Ross first smiled at the question, then paused before replying: “Mama.”

The fleeting exchange called into question the widely reported account that Floyd was crying out for his deceased mother as he lay pinned to the pavement. And it appeared to be one in a series of moves aimed at undermining a dominant narrative of Floyd’s death — established through bystander video and saturation news coverage and commentary — of a reckless, arrogant cop ignoring a man’s “I can’t breathe” cries as his life is snuffed out.

At another moment in the trial, Nelson asked a paramedic if he had responded to “other” overdose calls before quickly correcting himself to say “overdose calls” — perhaps a simple mistake, or an attempt to plant the idea that Floyd’s death was an overdose.

Expert witnesses for the prosecution have asserted drugs did not kill Floyd.

Nelson has repeatedly called the bystanders at Floyd’s arrest a “crowd” and “unruly” and suggested there were more people present than seen on camera. He drilled a fire department captain on taking 17 minutes to reach the scene when an ambulance called first arrived much sooner. And he persistently suggested Chauvin’s knee wasn’t on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes, 29 seconds as prosecutors have argued — suggesting instead it was across Floyd’s back, shoulder blades and arm.

“Many times as an attorney, you’ve got some facts that are just … bad for you. But you either want to downplay them or create another narrative,” said Mike Brandt, a Minneapolis defense attorney who is closely watching the case.

Any good defense attorney has to try and “take what you can get,” Brandt said. “Sometimes we say in a trial, you want to throw as much mud on the wall as you can and hope some of it sticks.”

Nelson, 46, handles cases ranging from drunken driving arrests to homicides, and is one of a dozen attorneys who take turns working with a police union legal defense fund to represent officers charged with crimes. One of his bigger cases involved Amy Senser, the wife of Joe Senser, a former Minnesota Vikings tight end, who was convicted in a 2011 hit-and-run death.

Nelson has joked with witnesses at times and, perhaps to connect with the jury, made light of his occasional fumbles with technology or mispronunciations of words. He’s a Minnesota native who, during a break in the trial, chatted up Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, asking whether he remembered the fight song for Minneapolis Roosevelt — the high school both attended.

Away from the lighter moments, Nelson has appeared well-prepared even as he goes up against a prosecution team many times larger. He has gone hard and consistently at his chief message: that Floyd’s consumption of illegal drugs is to blame for his death, rather than something Chauvin did. An autopsy found fentanyl and methamphetamine in Floyd’s system.

In the trial’s second week, Nelson played a snippet of officer body-camera video and asked two witnesses whether they could hear Floyd say, “I ate too many drugs.” The audio was hard to make out, but Nelson got a state investigator to agree with his version of the quote. Prosecutors later played a fuller clip and the investigator backtracked, saying he believed Floyd said “I ain’t do no drugs.”

As the state paraded medical experts to testify that Floyd died because his oxygen was cut off, not because of drugs, Nelson challenged the substance of their findings that the amounts detected in Floyd either were small or that people had survived significantly higher levels. But he also frequently framed questions to include the phrase “illicit drugs,” pointed out there’s no legal reason for a person to have methamphetamine in their system, and asked one witness whether he agreed that the number of deaths of people mixing meth and fentanyl had risen.

“This is a typical tactic that we’d say good defense attorneys do,” David Schultz, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who is watching the trial closely, said. “Not all of them are as subtle or gifted as Eric Nelson.”

When the paramedics first to the scene testified, Nelson’s questions included asking them why they did a “load and go” — that is, putting Floyd in their ambulance and moving a few blocks away before beginning treatment. It implied a delay in potentially life-saving treatment, but also fed into another recurring Nelson theme that prosecutors reject: the officers were distracted from caring for Floyd by a threatening crowd.

Video of the scene worked against the argument, showing about 15 people watching as Floyd was restrained, including several teens and girls, though several were shouting at the officers to get off Floyd and check him for a pulse.

Nelson has at times taken aim at the mountain of bystander, surveillance and body-camera video offered by police, suggesting it only tells part of the story and can be misleading. At one point, Nelson used the phrase “camera perspective bias” to suggest that Chauvin’s knee was not where the camera appeared to show it.

He has also argued that Chauvin was merely following the training he’d received throughout a 19-year career, even as several police supervisors — including Arradondo — testified otherwise. Nelson showed jurors an image from department training materials of a trainer with a knee on the neck of an instructor playing a suspect, and got some witnesses to agree generally that use of force may look bad but still be lawful.

Brandt said anything Nelson can do now – while the state is presenting its case – is huge, and will only serve as building blocks that he can use when he starts presenting his own case.

Schultz said attorneys have to be careful. He noted how Nelson’s questioning of Donald Williams, one of the most vocal bystanders, sparked a backlash on social media. Users accused Nelson, who pressed Williams on whether he was angry and repeated his profanities in court, of perpetuating an “angry Black man” trope.

Some jurors might have felt the same, Schultz said.

“You as the attorney have to sell yourself to the jury,” Schultz said. “And an attorney who risks pushing too far risks being disliked by the jury, and that’s damaging to the case, too.”


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