Mon, Jul 26, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Bickering over politics is tearing New Jersey apart

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEWARK, NEW JERSEY

Who knew that a condiment could spark so much civil unrest?

It all began a few weeks ago, when a few right-leaning lunch customers at City Beans began rejecting the usual squirt of Heinz ketchup on their paninis, saying they did not want to support a company with the same name as the wife of the presidential contender Senator John Kerry. It was not long before strident remarks about US President George W. Bush, Kerry, the economy and the war in Iraq began whizzing up and down the lunch line, with Democrats and Republicans trading barbs as they waited to be served by Narciza Lopez, the assistant manager. "People never used to talk politics here," said Lopez.

"Now every day is like a war. It's making me crazy," she said.

A similar kind of war breaks out each Sunday night around a dinner table in working-class Kearny, where hotheaded political discourse has begun cleaving Josefa Salino's family into two camps. "My parents used to agree on everything and now they're like enemies when it comes to Bush and Kerry," said Salino, an accountant.

"It's hard to enjoy your food when everyone is yelling," Salino said.

Although he is outnumbered by Republicans on the trading floor of Prudential Securities' Newark offices, Rob Lawrence has begun making a pest of himself, cornering colleagues with pointed invective against what he sees as the failings of the Bush administration. "I just can't help myself," said Lawrence, a lawyer and self-described liberal.

"I'm trying to win converts, although I haven't been very successful yet," he said.

Political passions are raging all across New Jersey, where office workers, sunbathers and drinking buddies have been swept up in spirited debate over the presidential contest, the war on terrorism and Fahrenheit 9/11, the documentary by Michael Moore that is critical of the Bush administration. Political apathy has been replaced by the kind of vocal discourse not seen since the race between former presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in 1980, when gas lines ran for blocks and US hostages where being held in Iran.

Cliff Zukin, a public policy professor at Rutgers University, said he was surprised to hear people talking presidential politics last week during a visit to the state motor vehicles office. "I've never seen people so passionate, where they genuinely believe there's a lot at stake," Zukin said.

"It you're a political scientist following the race, this is very cool," Zukin said.

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