When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie lounged on a closed public beach it was symbolic of his governing style. If you have money and power, you can do whatever you want—or as Christie said about his beach vacation, “That’s just the way it goes.”
And with Donald Trump in the White House, it seems like the winner-takes-all attitude has corrupted every level of American government.
But what just happened on another stretch of New Jersey shoreline goes to show: if there’s any truth in the Trump era, it’s that local politics is where ordinary people can fight back and win.
On Tuesday, the Atlantic City Council unanimously passed an ordinance to ensure its residents get to vote on any action by the state to sell or lease the city’s water system.
Why might New Jersey sell or lease Atlantic City’s water? Well, because Christie has been laying the groundwork for such a deal for years. In 2014, he passed a statewide law making it easier for struggling municipalities to sell off water infrastructure. Turns out, Atlantic City has been struggling—mainly due to a rash of casino closures, including Trump’s failed Taj Mahal. Last summer, after the state bailed the city out, Christie made it loud and clear there were strings attached: “I want [the loan] secured by every asset they have, so that if they don’t pay it, I get to take the assets, sell them and pay you [the taxpayer] back.” Late last year, he delivered on that promise and took control of the city’s assets and most of its decision-making power.
Within months, it became clear that Christie’s state takeover was really a corporate takeover. The law firm Christie hired to run the show—at $400 an hour—privatized trash collection and recommended the state layoff 100 of the city’s unionized firefighters. A partner at the firm defended the layoffs: “If we don’t have everyone sacrificing, we’re going to be Detroit.” Meanwhile, the city’s casino operators continue to receive massive tax breaks.
No wonder residents are worried their water system might be sold off or leased to a private corporation. Under public control, Atlantic City has some of the cleanest and most affordable water statewide. Privatization poses many dangers, including higher rates. New Jersey residents who get their water through private utilities pay an average of $230 more per year than those with public utilities. There’s also the issue of quality. The city of Missoula, Montana, recently took back ownership of its water system, arguing that under private ownership it was leaking half its water while investors received millions of dollars in dividends. And remember, it was state takeover that led to Flint, Michigan’s water crisis.
Residents might be worried but they aren’t running scared. Joined by statewide and national organizations, they packed council meetings for months and gathered signatures in the community to get the water ordinance up for vote. “This is the people’s ordinance,” said a member of the local NAACP, which helped get the word out.
This is what real democracy looks like. It’s hard work but it must be done, especially now that winner-takes-all is the new normal.
Water is a fundamental human right. The only way to make sure it’s accessible to everyone, no matter how much money they have or the color of their skin, is to keep it under public control and out of the hands of corporations.