Turkish-American Voters Look for Lower Taxes and a Friend to Immigrants in Next NJ Governor

By Orhan Akkurt | Zaman Amerika

WOODLAND PARK, NJ — On a Tuesday evening, the aroma of grilled chicken kebab wafts through Levent and Rukiye Koch’s kitchen. Generous platters of pilav, kofte balls and cold salad adorn the dining room the table.

As the couple, one of their three children, and family friends gather for the feast, the conversation soon turns to the upcoming gubernatorial election.

“After Pres. Trump got elected, my textile business has gotten worse, while taxes haven’t decreased,” said 43-year- old Tarkan Senol, a long-time Lyndhurst, NJ resident and friend to the Koch family.

He added, “I’m planning to vote for Phil Murphy,” referring to the Democratic contender looking to replace the outgoing and unpopular Gov. Chris Christie. Murphy is facing off against the state’s current lieutenant governor, Republican Kim Guadagno.

Despite his support for Murphy, Senol does note that Guadagno has promised to lower taxes in the state. New Jersey residents pay among the highest income tax rates in the country. But Senol was more skeptical about the promise of lower taxes, saying Guadagno might have worked to lower them during her time as Lt. Governor. “I’m afraid she may just repeat Christie’s policies,” he said.

Senol has lived in the United States for more than two decades, and he says the change brought about under the Trump administration does not bode well for the country or his state.

“With Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, middle-class immigrant families are spending less, because people don’t know what [Trump] is going to do next,” said Senol. “I don’t want to see such policies from the new governor.” For Ihsan Yesil, sitting next to Levent, the Republican candidate’s conservative values are what drawing his support.

“The Turkish community is conservative and can relate more to the values of most Republican candidates,” said Yesil, 38. “But Democrats support immigrant families. They also fight for human rights and freedom, which are very important for immigrants.”

Struggling to reconcile conflicting ideas, Levent added: “The problem is, I don’t think [Murphy] is the kind of person who understands middle-class families. He came from Wall Street.”

More than 20,000 Turkish Americans call New Jersey home, according the latest U.S. Census data, while another 25,000 reside in the New York area. Levent, who is actively involved in the Turkish community, said he often leans Democrat, but that in this year’s gubernatorial elections he will likely vote for Guadagno.

“The party is important in presidential elections. But the candidate is even more important in local elections,” Levent said. “I believe [Guadagno] will lower the real estate tax and handle poverty throughout the state. She has more political and administrative experience. And even if she is a Republican, she won’t act against immigrant families.”

Levent’s wife, Rukiye, expressed concern about the possibility of an elected official who seemed friendly to immigrants during the election but who might change tone once elected.

“I want a new governor who will improve relationships with all ethnic groups, someone who will establish positive dialogue among different community representatives,” she said. “State officials should meet more with the Turkish community and find ways to benefit from them.”

Munise, the Koch’s youngest daughter, said she has only one wish for the new governor: Make state colleges free. “That would be a dream come true.” Over dessert and coffee, Yesil expressed a common thread shared by everyone at the table.

“I just hope that our new governor will get to know the Turkish community,” he said. “We are educated people. If any politician gets to know who we are as a community, it will be a lot easier to establish warmer relationships, not just among Turkish in America but also in our native land.”

•   •   •

This story is part of the Voting Block series and was produced in collaboration with The Record, NJ Spotlight, WHYY, WNYC, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Cooperative Media and New America Media. To read all the stories in this series, visit VotingBlockNJ.com.