December 10, 2016
The Hammonton Christmas parade is usually about kids and community. But inviting Kellyanne Conway, President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign chief, to lead the parade as a grand marshal and promise her the symbolic keys to the city has made it something else.
Exactly what depends on who you ask. But the controversy was barely noticeable during Saturday's parade, with just a smattering of signs – for or against.
Conway herself steered clear.
She began by greeting townsfolk, expressing a clear and strong affection for the town.
Conway asked the crowd to pray for the outgoing president and then she asked the same for the incoming president.
A gaggle of broadcast journalists avoided any direct questions about politics.
Some saw inviting a local – Conway grew up in South Jersey’s Atco and graduated from high school in nearby Hammonton, where she was the Blueberry Princess and then a top blueberry packer – as only right for the first woman to oversee a successful presidential bid.
Born a Fitzgerald, Conway, 49, was raised by a single mom, who worked at a casino, and two aunts in an Italian family of small means. But she studied at Oxford University after college, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa honors society, and earned a law degree with honors from George Washington University Law Center.
She founded her own polling business and repped many top Republicans. She’s married to a trial lawyer and is the mother of four children, including twins. The family lives in affluent Alpine, in Bergen County, N.J.
By many accounts, she's a native daughter who's gone onto great personal and professional success.
But some, such as Hammonton native Lauren Wilson, don’t see Conway as a role model. Wilson sees Conway’s selection as grand marshal as politicizing an event made for families and children – “changing the nature of the event.”
Wilson believes honoring Conway, who frequently defended her candidate’s “hateful” words and behavior, has marginalized a large segment of the community she loves.
“We should have someone who represents all the people, not just someone who looks and acts like them,” she said of the white Italian-American men who control the town’s government.
Wilson claims the town’s mayor, Steve DiDonato, told her that a council member, who also volunteers at the city’s fire department, which sponsors the event, extended the invitation to Conway without any public input.
Councilman Mickey Pullia, who works for his family's insurance agency, also committed to presenting Conway with the keys to the city, Wilson said the mayor told her. Pullia is a classmate of Conway's from St. Joseph's, the Catholic high school they attended.
And according to Wilson, Pullia told the mayor, Steve DiDonato, that he secured the support of the majority of council to support the presentation.
Doing so without a vote at an open scheduled meeting of council would appear to violate New Jersey law, the Open Public Meetings Act.
Pullia did not respond to messages left for him Saturday at the firehouse where he is assigned. A firefighter hung up on a reporter on Friday. A message for DiDonato left Friday with the town clerk’s office also got no response.
Wilson said the mayor has told her he will not discuss the situation until a routine council meeting on Dec. 19.
Wilson is especially worked up that only the mayor and deputy mayor responded to emailed messages she sent. There were no responses from other members of council.
“That’s scary. That’s a problem that council is silent. That’s a lack of respect,” she said.
But Hammonton resident John Walsh, waiting for a haircut, thinks honoring Conway is "great."
"We have a hometown girl coming back. Hammonton made her. She's a part of us," he added.
Walsh, a Republican who works in marketing, admitted there is some irony since Trump did not campaign anywhere in New Jersey, but easily took the popular vote in Hammonton. "His campaign was very focused."
One thing that troubled Walsh deeply were the various threats made on either side of the divide after Conway's parade role was made public earlier this week.
"That's crazy on both sides," he said.
Stephen Young, a Marlton resident, who came to Hammonton for a haircut, said while he did not vote for Trump, "I don't see what the big deal is. She's a hometown girl. She can be honored."
Young said he was "one of the them" – a member of a group marginalized by Trump. But the former Marine and retired mortgage banking executive said to continue to oppose Trump – or in this case Conway – is "ridiculous."
"They won. It is just time to move on," said Young.
Hammonton is a town of fewer than 15,000 and overwhelmingly Italian-American from its days as an agricultural hub in the early 1900, when many migrants found work there and then made homes.
Today about 20 percent of the town’s population is Mexican-American; migrant Latinos took their places in the farm fields of Hammonton decades ago and now own homes and small businesses in the town.
A revived downtown and the presence of a state university, where Wilson works, has also meant a more diverse population, including the LGBTQ community.
Politically, the town is about 2-1 Republican and it supported Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton in the November contest.