They were there all the time, just waiting in cyberspace. The newspaper columns Rich Kelsey wrote over the last two years were bound to come into play in his campaign to win a seat on the County Board.
The questions were when, and how. “Obviously I’m aware of what I’ve written,” said Kelsey, the Republican nominee running to win one of two seats on the County Board, opposing Democratic incumbents Walter Tejada and Board Chair Paul Ferguson.
The two articles on New Jersey politics contain potentially inflammatory remarks about illegal immigrants and public school teachers. In one, he refers to illegal immigrants as “invaders” and people who “covet our goods.” In the other, he wrote that although good teachers are underpaid, other teachers should “take [their] subsistence pay and stop belly-aching about [their] salary.”
Kelsey stood by the opinions he expressed in the two articles, but said he recognized his opponents could use them against him. “At the end of the day, the message is going to be one thing and one thing only — Republican white lawyer doesn’t like immigrants,” he said. “They’re going to say that, and somebody is going to believe them.”
ALREADY, THE TWO columns have played a role in Kelsey’s failure to win endorsement from the Arlington Education Association, which last week came out in support of Ferguson and Tejada.
“Our committee read both the articles and they were both of some concern,” said Marjorie McCreery, AEA executive director. “We asked him some questions about his feelings about the diversity in Arlington, and he said nothing but positive things about it. But his other words speak rather loudly.”
Republican supporters took news of the articles in stride. “So the race is on,” said David Avella, Arlington Republican Committee chair. The fact that people are paying attention shows that Kelsey is a strong candidate, he said, capable of intimidating the Democratic incumbents.
Neither Ferguson nor his campaign manager Aaron Nisenson had a comment about the articles, or about Kelsey’s positions.
Tejada, too, had little to say. “I am someone who always focuses on bringing people together and trying to solve problems in a constructive way,” he said. “Those values of inclusion are what I take to heart, and what other people do or say, I can’t control.”
ALTHOUGH FERGUSON has not commented on Kelsey’s articles and Tejada has not criticized the Republican challenger, Kelsey predicted the tone of the campaign would change after word gets out about his articles.
“There are people who will do whatever it takes to paint me as someone who doesn’t like minorities, who doesn’t like immigrants, and that’s absolutely untrue,” he said. “If this is the way they want to play, we’ll open fire.”
Kelsey is already airing television advertisements and threatened to address future ads at his opponents. “If they want my next spot to fire at will, tell them to let me know,” he said. “They’ve ticked me off now, I’ve got news for you.”
IN ONE GUEST column publised July 10, 2002, in the Farmingdale, N.J., News Transcript, Kelsey’s hometown paper, he addressed illegal immigration in the small New Jersey town of Freehold Borough, where he grew up. “We need not be mean, cruel or inhumane in our treatment of illegal invaders, but we must vigorously work to remove them from the community,” he wrote.
The article did not criticize legal immigration. In fact, Kelsey wrote, “Freehold is a vibrant town of many mixed heritages. Indeed, that is part of what makes ‘my hometown’ special. We are all immigrants. The illegal invaders, however, are not immigrants.”
Last week, he reaffirmed that stance. “I am very pro-immigration, but we cannot allow more lawful immigration until we address illegal immigration,” he said. “That’s my position, which I feel is unassailable.”
But the idea that illegal immigration hurts legal immigration is controversial. “I don’t think that it affects it,” said Andres Tobar, a Hispanic activist and candidate in the Democratic primary for the General Assembly. “People that are going through the process and are becoming legal immigrants… are not being stifled,” he said.
Tobar had not read Kelsey’s column but said illegal immigrants — he prefers the term “undocumented” — have been political scapegoats before. “They’re picking on people who can’t defend themselves, and it’s a tragedy that they would do that,” said Tobar. “These people have no rights, they have no benefits, and they’re working for minimum wage and are making a major contribution to our economy.”
KELSEY STRESSED THAT his column was directed at a problem in Freehold Borough, and he has no reason to believe Arlington has or will have a similar problem.
In Freehold, which covers only 1.6 square-miles and has a population of about 10,500, huge numbers of illegal immigrants led an all-Democrat council to pass a quality of life ordinance to combat overcrowding and other problems, Kelsey said.
However, Kelsey does believe there is a legal imperative to report information on known illegal immigration to the appropriate federal authorities.
That’s not policy in Arlington.
“First of all, we don’t have the resources or the training to enforce federal immigration laws,” said Matt Martin, a spokesperson for the Arlington County Police Department.
As a matter of policy, Arlington police aren’t allowed to ask residents or suspects about their immigration status unless it’s absolutely necessary for identification purposes. Local officers do cooperate with federal officials on immigration issues, but they don’t blow the whistle unless an illegal immigrant is convicted of a felony; is manufacturing documents or in some other way helping bring other people to the country illegally; or is suspected of being connected to terrorist activity.
“That’s a fairly widely accepted policy in local policing,” said Martin.
IN AN EDITORIAL on RightTurns.com, published in December 2001, Kelsey argued that professional organizations like the New Jersey Education Association only offer job security to mediocre teachers, preventing good teachers from earning the kinds of salaries earned by doctors and lawyers.
“The answer for teachers seeking better wages is, of course, simple,” wrote Kelsey. “Give up your union protectionism. … If you’re good, you will be properly compensated.”
Kelsey defended the article this week, calling it a mere proposal for ways to improve teacher salaries, rather than a practical model. “It’s a more theoretical piece, but it’s grounded in what we know has been successful in everything else we do,” said Kelsey.
In Arlington, and Virginia as a whole, County Board members have little say in school operations. If elected to the board, Kelsey would have no authority over teacher tenure — only the General Assembly can make those changes. Board members do approve school funding, however. Under a current agreement between Arlington Public Schools and the County, the schools automatically receive 48.6 percent of revenue collected each year by the county.
Kelsey does advocate studying the possibility of changing or abolishing the agreement. “I do think the 48.6 percent needs to be reviewed.” That wouldn’t necessarily mean cutting education funding, he said.
Representatives from the AEA continue to support the agreement. “That [agreement] has worked very well for funding the needs articulated by the school board and has reduced friction between the two boards,” said McCreery.