Stomping Grounds: Parental Rights, GOP Debate, Social Media, and Journalism

Gun Rights

New Jerseyans aren’t always civil, but it’s still possible for a liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican to have a rational and pleasant conversation about politics in the state.  Dan Bryan is a former senior advisor to Gov. Phil Murphy and is now the owner of his own public affairs firm, and Alex Wilkes is an attorney and former executive director of America Rising PAC who advises Republican candidates in New Jersey and across the nation.  Dan and Alex are both experienced strategists who are currently in the room where high-level decisions are made.  They will get together weekly with New Jersey Globe editor David Wildstein to discuss politics and issues.

New Jersey Globe: A new Monmouth University poll shows 77% of New Jersey residents, including a majority of Democrats, think parents should be notified if their child seeks to change gender on school records, and 75% oppose teaching gender education at the elementary school level.  Have Republicans found a red issue in a blue state heading into the midterm legislative elections?

Alex Wilkes: I don’t think it’s a “red” issue so much as it is a common sense issue – something that this poll confirms with the wide support parental notification receives from Republicans, Independents, and Democrats. Kid needs an aspirin, falls, or is failing math? Call home. Kid wants to use a different bathroom, and we keep it a secret? Seriously?

No one wants kids to feel unsafe at home, but the policies being targeted by the Murphy Administration allow schools to use some discretion for that reason. Beyond those exceptional circumstances, parents have the right to raise their children as we see fit.

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Nobody knows our kids better than we do. We have been there for the fevers, diaper rashes, runny noses, skinned knees, scary dreams, broken hearts, and bad days. From the moment they are born, we know their hearts in a way that Phil Murphy, Matt Platkin or some school bureaucrat whack job ever could.

Murphy and Platkin – along with the Democrats complicit in their silence – completely overstepped here, and, quite frankly, they should find a sleepy Friday before the summer is over to drop their suit. It’s more politically advantageous for us in November if the litigation continues, but for the sake of these parents and our children, I pray that they care about their own political futures over this latest attempt to make New Jersey the “California of the East.” A big thank you Senators Testa and Steinhardt for taking up this cause!

Dan Bryan: I’d like Republicans to answer this question regarding parental rights: do parents have the right to send their children to a school without guns present? If so, why are Republicans supporting lawsuits from the NRA challenging laws banning guns from schools? I would be far more concerned for the safety of my child going to school with guns in the classroom than different gender identities. Can we please get every Republican legislative candidate on record with their answer to that question? Maybe the media can take a short break from their breathless coverage of young people struggling with gender identity.

But let’s be clear: the state’s position has never and will never be that a parent can’t be notified. This entire debate is based on an outright lie. There is no ban on notification, period.

With all due respect to Patrick Murray (whom I think the world of and regard as the best and most thoughtful public pollster in the country), I think the question, as phrased, led to a fairly obvious outcome. Of course the vast majority of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans agree that they’d like to be notified. But if the question ended with “…regardless of the health and safety of the child,” what would the answer have been? What about children that are in abusive households, that are terrified of their parents finding out about their gender identity? Are we OK with forcing teachers into that circumstance?

As a father, I know two things about this. One, I certainly would like to be notified of any serious issues in my child’s life by school officials. Two, there is no circumstance whatsoever that a teacher would find out about my child’s gender identity before I would. The only circumstance a parent wouldn’t know would be willful ignorance, or creating such a fear in their child that the child is too afraid to discuss the issue with their parents. I’m not sure having a teacher intervene in either situation is healthy.

If we’d like to have this conversation in a thoughtful, substantive manner, we cannot ignore the health and safety of the vulnerable children in question. This cannot be answered in a broad brush stroke, and the issue is far too important and complex to be swept up into the politics of the day. Democrats are smart to simply agree and take this issue off the table, but as policy makers, we must be much more nuanced.

NJ Globe: What’s your take on the first Republican presidential debate?  Hopefully you both watched it.  

Dan: With sincere apologies to my good friend Alex, until further notice, these Republican “debates” are a worthless sideshow and not worth anyone’s time or attention. Donald Trump is the runaway favorite for the Republican presidential nomination, and at this point he will likely be running for President from a jail cell as the nominee. And in that circumstance, I doubt he loses many more states than he did in 2020.

The national Republican party is hopelessly broken, and until they escape from Donald Trump’s chokehold, any Republican Presidential “debate” simply serves as a ratings grab. If I want my time wasted by a disappointing, expensive fiasco, I’ll watch the Mets, thank you very much.

Alex: I did watch it, and I know that David, Dan, and some of the other readers here will appreciate just the sheer excitement of the political calendar turning over once more. Didn’t every kid spend their summer vacations watching primary debates or the conventions the following year?

Before you hit me with the all the reasons I shouldn’t be excited (e.g. the frontrunner didn’t show, it’s hard to make a point in 45 seconds, people tune out after the first 30 minutes, etc.), allow me to take some genuine joy in watching the policy divides play out, along with the anticipation of knowing that a single night under the hot lights reshuffles the whole deck. For both parties, debates have had the power to end campaigns and careers or remake them entirely. While nothing that extreme may have happened last night, we did get to hear meaningful exchanges that showcased the candidates’ different views on foreign policy, federalism, and the budget, among other subjects. I mean, I liked it. I’m only sad that we won’t get to see a similar exchange on the other side, despite the majority of Democrats who want to see Joe Biden debate (or replaced – same difference, perhaps).

Call me pollyannaish, but for both parties, this is our Olympics. I can only hope that there’s another 8-year-old kid – away from the cynicism and hot takes on social media – watching and counting delegates with the same sense of intrigue and excitement.

NJ Globe: A Montclair councilman unexpectedly dropped out of the 2024 mayoral race this week, saying he’s walking away from his political career to protect his mental health.  He bemoaned living his life under a microscope, and said that “social media is the anthesis of humanity.”  Should all of us worry that good people are becoming increasingly less likely to run for public office – and maybe we’ll wind up with second-tier people governing?   

Alex: ​​David, I think it may be a little too generous to assume we have even third-tier people governing in some places, but in all honesty, your point is well-taken.

As I’m sure Dan can relate, it can be hard convincing candidates – especially newcomers – to put themselves out there. In other states with more robust media outlets, there’s the concern that their life’s work will be torn to pieces all over the local news. Even here in New Jersey, the vitriol on local community Facebook pages can be so severe that candidates are reluctant to make themselves or their families (spouses with professional careers of their own or kids in the school district) a target.

A personal story: last year at the height of the midterms, a “reporter” (from a different state) contacted me about a college boyfriend running for office regarding a decade-old social media post that I can honestly say had zero value in voters assessing his character or fitness for office. It was one of the most dishonest smears I have ever encountered – and I work in this business!

I guess our only hope is that like the example above the supposed “gotchas” get so outrageously stupid that it eventually becomes noise that voters will tune out.

Dan: Alex is right – convincing the right people to run for office is incredibly difficult. The sale seems to get harder and harder every year, especially at the local level, where the downside far outweighs the upside. There is no amount of money you could pay me to run for my local Board of Education (which, of course, makes me eternally grateful to those that do serve!).

I live in a town very similar to Montclair. My wife and I have noted many times that as much as we love our town and have liked almost every single resident we’ve met in person, we universally loathe most of the people who post on our local Facebook groups. It’s like we live in two different towns: the real one, with smart, engaged neighbors that are almost universally welcoming and friendly, and the digital one, where everyone seems to be judgemental, suspicious, and incredibly vicious.

Social media has fundamentally altered the way local communities engage, and not for the better. I don’t blame anyone for walking away from public service if their experience was toxic and unhealthy. We as residents need to understand that our local elected officials are almost always in public service for the right reasons, and whether or not we agree with them, we cannot abuse and harass them, publicly or privately.

NJ Globe: I’ll use the last question of this week’s Stomping Grounds to ask for a little advice, for me and for others: what’s the best way for journalists to balance a professional responsibility to report the news without throwing gasoline on the fire and weaponizing an already toxic environment?

Dan: I don’t think reporters should worry too much about the impact of what they report, barring extreme circumstances that could jeopardize someone’s safety, health, or well-being. They should assess the public interest and the utility of a story. Reporters are paid to dig deep and report facts that others don’t want reported – anything else, as the saying goes, is public relations.

Of course, that’s different than “political media ” that exists solely to press a political agenda and, more often than not, spreads misinformation (coughoneohonepointfivecough). They fail the test above – some small percentage of the public may be interested in what they say, but spewing harmful garbage as they do serves no public utility.

Social media companies, though, can and should be held to a higher standard by our government. Let’s examine their algorithms – are they sowing discontent and creating toxic communities so they can ramp up engagement and make a few extra bucks? If so, let’s step in and regulate them. Their actions are affecting millions of Americans’ mental health, especially young people. Let’s hold them accountable and demand change.

Alex: I think – not to ruin your street cred here, David – that this is something you do well, and I’ve seen others take on with care. I think with just so much information out there online about everyone, reporters ought to apply a high bar for what’s newsworthy and what’s human. I think it also helps to have professionals on both sides that help their clients make that distinction, as well. If there’s something legitimately damning about your client out there, take it head on and be honest with them about its news value – however painful. If it’s too personal, then fight it like hell, but the key is for everyone to acknowledge that there is a line somewhere in the morass of information out there.

Editor’s note: I enjoyed watching Alex Wilkes and Dan Bryan on Think Tank with Steve Adubato this week.  If you missed it, click HERE to watch.  

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