By JOHN T. WARD
Red Bank mayoral contender Billy Portman is “not looking for a lifetime in politics,” he says.
In fact, if all goes according to plan, he’ll be able to hand the reins to his successor just five months after being sworn in, he says.
“People are like, ‘what’s your platform?’ I don’t have one,” Portman told redbankgreen in April. “My platform is ‘change starts now.'”
Anticipating a November referendum on a new form of government and a switch to nonpartisan elections starting next May, both of which Portman believes voters would approve, Portman said he wants only to “put an end to the acrimony” that has dominated local affairs in recent years” and “make sure the transition is smooth” from one form of government to another.
The winner would face Republican Brian Irwin in the November general election. Irwin along with council candidates Jonathan Maciel Penney and Christine Stout, is unopposed in the GOP primary.
Portman, with no experience in politics except as a grassroots campaigner for presidential candidates, is not running on a detailed agenda, he acknowledges. In fact, he got into the race at the last minute, motivated mainly by a desire to offer voters an alternative to Ballard, who’s a beneficiary of what he sees as “machine” politics.
“It’s not just about [Ballard] being unopposed. It’s the way he got to be unopposed,” with only 10 of 18 Democratic county committee members having decided he should replace four-term incumbent Menna on the ticket, Portman said. “You had 10 people in a room saying, ‘this is how it’s going down.’ And we don’t even know if all of them were there.”
Ballard is running on a ticket with council candidates Angela Mirandi and John Jackson. Portman is running solo. But he supports a reform slate of county committee candidates who hope to unseat Ed Zipprich as local Democratic chairman and redirect the party. Zipprich is also a council member and Ballard ally.
Portman expressed deep distaste for the infighting on the all-Democratic council, which he traces to the Zipprich-Ballard faction.
After the 2018 election, when Democrats secured all six council seats and the mayoralty, Portman said he thought they would have “their own little slice of heaven,” set apart from the divisiveness seen at the national level by unity and getting things done.
It didn’t turn out that way. Ballard and Zipprich were soon at odds with the then-majority bloc of council members Kathy Horgan, Erik Yngstrom, Kate Triggiano and Hazim Yassin. Triggiano and Yassin had just been elected, but a sharp divide emerged over repairs to the damaged Senior Center, and spread to other issues.
“It’s kind of disgusting, really,” Portman said. “It just feels like business as usual, backroom dealing, all that stuff you would watch on a TV show about sleazy politicians. It just feels completely unnecessary.”
With Yngstrom having resigned in disgust from the council in January, Ballard is now in the majority faction with Zipprich, Mirandi and Jacqueline Sturdivant, who beat Yassin last November. Mirandi was appointed in February to Yngstrom’s seat, with a term that ends in December.
Portman, 53, grew up in Ocean Township and lived in Los Angeles for 15 years before returning to the Red Bank area in 2010 and settling in town shortly thereafter. He lives with his wife, Emily and three children on John Street.
A building contractor by day who sings in the cover band So Watt, Portman says he’s someone who stays in touch with people “from all aspects” of his life, including friends he made at summer camp as a kid. For 10 years of his time in California, he was the emcee of the annual Topanga Days music festival. A local media report cited “the familiar tenor of Billy Portman’s voice announcing the seed spitting contest” among the event’s charms. When Portman moved back east, a Topanga friend gave him a gift: a t-shirt that proclaimed “Mayor.”
“I’m comfortable playing that role of bringing people together,” he said.
Before jumping into the race at the eleventh hour, Portman had never been to a Red Bank council meeting, but doesn’t think that’s an issue. In April, Portman told a gathering of supporters at Tino’s Restaurant on Shrewsbury Avenue that “it’s about the big picture for me,” rather than the details of a platform.
He supports the concept of a strong municipal administrator, leaving the day-to-day management of borough hall operations to a professional who serves at the pleasure of the council, while the governing body focuses on policy.
“That’s a very clear difference of opinion from what my opponent feels,” he said.
He calls himself a “big supporter” of nonpartisan elections. “Especially in today’s climate, to label everyone as Democrat or Republican – and I’m saying this as a lifelong Democrat – to put those labels on in a small town just brings a whole level of acrimony that doesn’t need to be there,” he said.
Nonpartisan elections “allow any resident a fair opportunity to run for local office, and will bring the focus on local issues and policies, and away from politics,” Portman said in a campaign mailing.
He notes that by a two-to-one margin last November, Red Bank voters approved the creation of the Charter Study Commission, which is expected to recommend the referenda this month.
If one calling for nonpartisan elections passes, another election would be held in May, 2023 for all seats. Meaning, if he’s mayor, Portman would be up for re-election five months after being sworn in.
“That sounds great,” Portman said. “I still have an escape clause.”
Madison Avenue resident Kevin King, who’s known Portman for seven years, told the Tino’s gathering that he’ll “bring a breath of fresh air to Red Bank government.” And James Hertler, of Harding Road, told redbankgreen he sees Portman as “a natural problem solver” with no hidden agenda who won’t “get sucked into the backbiting and bitterness we’ve seen in Red Bank politics for so long.”
“Listen, this might prove to be a terrible idea for me,” Portman said. “But the worst that can happen is I lose.”
Who can vote in the primary? Under New Jersey law, voters who are already affiliated with the Republican or Democratic Party can vote only in that party’s primary election. Unaffiliated voters may participate in the primary of their choice, but will automatically have their voter registration status changed from unaffiliated to either Republican or Democrat (whichever ballot has been chosen) unless and until they later change their registration status back to unaffiliated or to another political party.
Unaffiliated voters can vote at their polling locations by indicating the political party primary election in which they would like to vote.
On June 7, polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Polling stations can be found here.
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