Voting Block: A New Jersey voter on the fence

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Paulsboro resident Christa Cooper leaves her polling place at the Paulsboro Fire House satisfied with her decision to vote for Phil Murphy for governor. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Paulsboro resident Christa Cooper leaves her polling place at the Paulsboro Fire House satisfied with her decision to vote for Phil Murphy for governor. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Early Tuesday morning, Christa Cooper stepped outside the Paulsboro, New Jersey, firehouse, having just cast her vote at her polling place in the small, blue-collar town due east of the Philadelphia airport.

“I was kind of undecided up until this morning,” Cooper said.

Not everyone knows which button he or she will push inside the voting booth on Election Day. Cooper, wearing a black jacket and a white head wrap against the brisk air, was one of those undecided voters.

“I went through all of the different issues that were on the ballot,” she said. “Governor was the last one that I picked.”

Cooper had been thinking about the New Jersey governor’s race for months, but hasn’t liked what she’s heard from Democrat Phil Murphy or Republican Kim Guadagno.

The 45-year-old mother of five has a slew of concerns that dog her daily, especially nuisance crime.

At a community meeting in April, choking back tears, she told Paulsboro’s mayor and the police chief that she had been observing more and more young people loitering in the street outside her house, littering their cigarette butts and, she thought, selling drugs.

Paulsboro has also had several shootings — some fatal — in recent years.

“I’m afraid the next time it’s gonna be one of our babies,” she said, her voice cracking.

There is also the housing issue. Cooper and others have said out-of-towners are renting homes in the city at higher rates, attracting a certain group of people they say have given the town a rougher edge.

When she watched the first gubernatorial debate between Guadagno and Murphy in October, Cooper did not see two candidates addressing those issues.

They discussed property taxes, pensions and immigration, which Cooper granted were important topics. But they were not the things she deals with, day in and day out.

“Right now, I don’t see an answer in these two candidates,” Cooper said after the debate. “I see a continuation of the same situation.”

Heading into the debate, Cooper would have voted for Murphy. She is a Democrat.

But Murphy struck her as a typical politician who didn’t understand her, and she was so disappointed in his performance that she switched to being undecided. “It changed me from being, ‘OK, I’m Democrat and I’m going with the Democrat.’ It changed that.”

Tuning in to governor’s race

Cooper hasn’t always paid attention to politics, but she watched this race closely, largely to observe the influence of President Donald Trump. (She doesn’t support him.)

She is also thinking about retirement. A teacher at the local Boys and Girls Club, Cooper spends her off hours shuttling her kids back and forth to their sports games.

Over the course of the campaign, she found it difficult to sort through all the noise, like the campaign mailers and TV ads.

“You really have to step aside from all of that stuff and do a little more research and find out what it is that they’re saying,” she said. “Because when they get into the debates and that mudslinging, you don’t get to hear the real grounds that they’re running on.”

When she finally got to have her say on Tuesday, Cooper did not vote based on any candidate’s policy or personality.

Instead, she went on the word of someone she trusted.

“Just on what my former president said. And that’s what I believe in so that’s what I went with.”

Former President Barack Obama endorsed Murphy. The two Democrats even campaigned together in New Jersey. That endorsement guided Cooper’s vote.

“Barack Obama said that [Murphy] was the person to go with to help New Jersey move forward, and so, like I said, I’m trusting my former president and what he said. And that was a big turning point for me.”

Whoever takes the top job in Trenton next year can be assured that Christa Cooper will be following along closely.

To cover the New Jersey governor’s race, WHYY teamed up with other news outlets to speak with voters across the state about issues affecting them. Voting BlockNJ is a collaborative reporting effort including WNYC, WBGO, NJ Spotlight, and The Record of the USA Today Network. The Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting coordinated the project.

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