As he sets out on his maiden voyage toward political office, 77-year-old Robert Natko considers himself “uniquely qualified” to become a member of the West Caldwell Town Council for a very simple reason.
“I’m Jewish,” he said.
“There hasn’t been a Democratic victor in West Caldwell for 37 years, let alone an elected Jewish office holder of any stripe since the late ’80s,” he told NJ Jewish News in a Sept. 14 telephone interview.
Natko shares a ticket with Democratic mayoral challenger Alex Trento, and fellow council candidate Leonard Luciano. They seek the council seats currently held by Republicans Joseph Cecere and Rosemarie Sutherlin. Sutherlin will not seek a third term.
Natko’s roots in the American-Jewish community are deep. He grew up in a Labor Zionist household with Yiddish-speaking parents and grandparents who had emigrated from Poland. They helped him develop a deep social conscience, he said.
“Their politics gave me a different sense about being Jewish than what is available to kids today,” he said. “Judaism is only sectarian now, but then it was a mix — philosophically, politically, intellectually — and it has stayed with me. That sense of social justice is my prime motivator in running for office. I want to see things done right.”
As he applies that broad concept to local politics in a suburban town of 10,000 people, Natko’s message is a mixture of fiscal integrity and good government.
Beyond being a strong advocate for his fellow senior citizens, he said, “We have to check wasteful spending and hold the line on municipal taxes.”
He grew up in Brooklyn and the Bronx, graduating from City College with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, and has lived in West Caldwell for 39 years. Now semi-retired after 45 years as a textile company executive, Natko said he hopes to lend some of his business expertise to improving West Caldwell’s economic base.
“The town gets very crowded with traffic in the afternoons, but no one is stopping off to go shopping. We don’t have the appeal Montclair or Westfield might have with our stores, and that is something we have to work on.”
Beyond that, Natko sees some areas of blight that need to be remedied. “There are sections of town where there have been empty stores for the longest time. There is an old gas station on Bloomfield Avenue that has been closed up and has been an eyesore for years. I would like to see it condemned or fixed or find a West Caldwell community action group or community business group to deal with it.
“I don’t see any attempt to bring new businesses to town,” Natko continued. “We should be inviting new businesses in so those things don’t happen.”
He also complains of a one-party rule that has spread “cronyism” in his hometown.
‘An underdog’s fight’
Stephen Wolsky, who is not Jewish, is one of three Republican candidates who will face Natko and his running mates in November. Like Natko, it is Wolsky’s first experience in seeking elective office.
Wolsky, general manager of the predominantly Jewish Mountain Ridge Country Club in West Caldwell, disagrees sharply with his Democrat opponent’s characterization of the town’s Republican government.
“It is not a locked job. Republicans have been elected year after year, but I don’t think anybody is strong-arming anybody. It’s a free country, and people get to vote for who they want to vote for. The people have voted in Republicans,” said Wolsky.
“For sure it looks like a Republican year, but I think I have a chance,” Natko told NJJN. “Our government has been Republican for the last century, and there haven’t been Democrats since maybe the 1970s. It is time for a change. It has been like an old-time political machine, and it’s time we break it. I want to see things run more democratically, and I want more people to get the chance to run for office.”
Natko concedes “it is an underdog’s fight,” but one he is determined to win.
“I am an old guy who has decided to run because I feel I need to pay back. It has been a good life,” he said.
Natko and his wife, Dorothy, have four children and four grandchildren. He is a member of Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove.