As co-captain of the Columbia High School tennis team, Alex Torpey spent many hours battling hard-hitting opponents on the municipal courts of South Orange. Soon, the 23-year-old grad student and self-professed government “nerd” might face equally bruising skirmishes on the political battlefield if he succeeds in his quest to become South Orange’s next Village President (“Village President” is equivalent to what is called a “Mayor” in most municipalities; the position is a volunteer, four-year term).
“The best way for me to make sure that our town is moving in the right direction is to run,” said Torpey, who is the first candidate to throw his hat into the ring. If he wins the May 13 election, succeeding Douglas Newman, Torpey would become the youngest mayor ever elected in New Jersey.
Torpey’s wide-ranging work experience belies his relative youth. President of the new media consulting company Veracity Media LLC, he is currently working toward an MPA in Protection/Emergency Management at CUNY John Jay. He has worked with non-profits and as director of new media for Assemblyman John F. McKeon, and currently serves as trustee of the South Orange Public Library.
As a volunteer CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) coordinator for the South Orange Police Department, Torpey has accompanied police on calls. “I know what their job is like,” he said. That familiarity could prove invaluable if Torpey is called on to tackle the community’s growing crime problem.
In fact, the department recently enlisted Torpey to help them combat the recent resurgence of “flash mobs.” “I’m showing them how to use social media tools to keep ahead of the curve,” Torpey said. He envisions creating a local law enforcement social media “dashboard” that could eventually be used by police departments across the state.
“I don’t see support coming from Village Hall right now,” Torpey said. “We know what to do; we have to provide the police department with the resources they need.” He continued, “It comes down to leadership. We need results tomorrow.”
On the economic development front, Torpey believes the board of trustees did not solicit sufficient community input when drafting the town’s Vision Plan in 2009. He said a similar lack of input led to a negative public perception that has continued to dog the struggling South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC).
“We should not move forward on anything else in the Vision Plan without making sure the community is on board,” said Torpey. He would like to see affordable housing (and student housing) included in development plans, such as the proposed mixed-use residential and retail building slated for the corner of Valley and 3rd Streets. “I don’t understand the emphasis on luxury housing when the people who grew up and went to school here can’t afford to stay.”
He also wants the town to focus on filling “vacant storefronts on South Orange and Irvington Avenues, which we can do without spending any more money.”
The candidate spoke about building better connections between the community and students at Seton Hall University. “Seton Hall is such an incredible component of our town, and we are not utilizing what they bring to the table.”
In addition to luring more student-friendly businesses, Torpey suggested working with the university to develop a better bus and jitney system. “Other towns have done this successfully. It would reduce traffic and help with parking problems, while bringing more people into the village.”
If he wins, Torpey would use social media to communicate with his constituents; for instance, he would release weekly video updates. “Not everyone can spend three hours at a board meeting on a Monday night,” he said. He also would get important information out sooner: “With the recent flash mob situation, the Village President didn’t issue a statement until four days later. I would have contacted people immediately!”
Despite the serious issues facing the community, Torpey is strongly optimistic about the future of South Orange. “Residents should feel excited about and invested in living here,” Torpey said. If that exists, “a lot of the rest will fall into place.”
Torpey will begin the first few days of his campaign by talking with residents, business owners and students about the future of South Orange. Look for him around town. You can follow him on Facebook and twitter, or email him.