Victory for Nathan, Jensen, and Cunningham Puts a New Coalition in Charge
Democrats Josh Nathan and Jamie Jensen, and Republican Keith Cunningham, were overwhelmingly elected to four-year terms on the City Council on Tuesday.
The threesome plans to join forces with Republican Councilmember Bill Henderson to form a new bipartisan coalition that will have majority control of the Council.
A write-in effort to re-elect Carolina Johnson, an Independent who was closely allied with Mayor Josh Cohn, fell short, leaving the mayor and two other Councilmembers – Democrat Julie Souza and Independent Ben Stacks – in the new minority.
In unofficial results, with 100 percent of the districts reporting, Josh Nathan received 2,014 votes, Jamie Jensen 2,009, Keith Cunningham, 1,817, and Lori Fontanes, 928.
Those results did not include early voting or absentee ballots, but the uncounted votes would not be enough to change the outcome.
“Jamie, Keith, and I are very excited for the opportunity to work together,” said Nathan. “We pledge, together with our colleague Councilman Bill Henderson, to listen and work for you, the citizens of Rye. We will bring that spirit to the Council at-large, and we look forward to it being well received.”
Said Jensen: “I never thought there would be such enthusiasm and turnout. I’m honored.”
She added that residents told her on the campaign trail they felt beleaguered, because there were many challenges in Rye that were not being properly addressed by the Council. They also were tired of the lack of civility on the Council.
“I look forward to serving the residents of the City of Rye,” Cunningham said. “I’m convinced that any challenges we face as a community can be solved if we listen and trust each other and keep the best interests of Rye as our focus.”
The deeply divided Council blocs do not break down along party lines; they are based on personal relationships and contrasting perspectives on how to govern Rye. In the new majority, Nathan and Jensen are Democrats, and Henderson and Cunningham are Republicans.
Members of the new Council majority say they will handle the City’s business differently by allowing a full and transparent discussion of issues, including participation from the public. They had complained that Mayor Cohn and his coalition did not consult them when making key decisions.
But the new majority does not plan to return the favor.
“We will not cut them out of decision making,” Nathan said. “We’re going to bring the spirit of collaboration to the Council, and we’re looking forward to having them participate. No more blocs.”
Cohn said of the winning candidates on Wednesday, “I congratulate them and wish them well. I am hopeful that the new Council will be civil, collaborative, and non-divisive. I’m curious to see what that will actually look like.”
The top issues the new Council will grapple with are flood mitigation, whether to turf Nursery Field, good governance, and comprehensive city planning.
After the votes were tallied on Tuesday night, Johnson explained in a phone interview that she initially declined to seek re-election because she wasn’t ready to commit by the deadline. But after Lori Fontanes, whose name was on the ballot, announced she was suspending her campaign because she had decided to move out of Rye in 2024, Johnson said, “I got to thinking, maybe there was a way or chance to continue the work.”
In a surprise move, shortly before Election Day, Johnson announced she would run as a write-in candidate.
As Johnson removed her write-in campaign lawn signs around town on Tuesday night, she said she had an uphill battle in the election. “It was a two-week campaign, and more a message giving people a choice, some hope,” she said. Of the outcome, she added: “I don’t know that it’s good for Rye, but whatever, it’s fine.”
During the remainder of her term, Johnson plans to focus on the many big issues facing the City, especially flood mitigation.
She said that Mayor Cohn did not ask her to run as a write-in candidate, though she was pleased to have his support. If Johnson had won, Cohn’s coalition would have maintained control of the Council.
Cohn said he was not aware that Johnson was planning a write-in campaign until others asked him to pass along a message of support to his friends. “I like Carolina, I think she’s great, so I did that,” he said.
Another wild card in the election was whether Fontanes, who is allied with Nathan and Henderson, would be re-elected – despite having announced several months ago that she had suspended her campaign. Supporters of the new majority were concerned that residents might simply vote the party line, re-electing Fontanes. If that had happened, any replacement would have needed to be approved by a majority of the remaining Council members. But Rye voters got the message, and Fontanes did not receive enough votes to finish in the top three.
There has been plenty of bad blood on the Council.
Over the past few years, members of the Council minority complained they could not get items on the agenda and the Mayor made appointments to boards and commissions without consulting them, because he already had the votes he needed.
Long-simmering tensions between the Council factions burst into public view earlier this year when Mayor Cohn announced that the four members of the Council majority had sued the City’s Board of Ethics, which had criticized them for an appearance of conflict of interest.
At the same time, the Mayor’s coalition voted 4-3 to require the City to finance both their lawsuit and the Ethics Board’s legal defense. After heated backlash from the community, the Mayor and his allies dropped the suit.
With the new Council majority, several pressing matters before the Council are expected to be handled differently. Among those are:
• Nursery Field. The community is deeply divided over whether to put artificial turf on Nursery field. Supporters argue that the community desperately needs more sports field space. Opponents say that putting artificial turf in a flood plain would be costly and environmentally irresponsible. The current majority favors the artificial turf; the new majority wants to study the matter further and weigh community sentiment more carefully.
• Golf Course Fees. The current majority favors a proposal to raise the revenue needed to operate Rye Golf Club by charging new resident members more than current resident members. The new majority will reconsider that approach.
• Composting. The current majority ended home composting pick-up by City trucks, a decision the new majority will likely reconsider.
• Board Appointments. Without a solid majority, the Mayor will not be able to make appointments to boards and commissions without consulting the full Council. The new majority will now have to sign off on mayoral appointments.
• Board of Ethics. The current majority, arguing that the Board of Ethics criticized them unfairly, has been considering changes to how the Board operates. The new majority supports the Board, although it will consider reviewing how any city board does its work.
• Osborn Development. The current majority approved plans by The Osborn, the senior living facility, to erect more buildings on its property. The new majority might reconsider that approval.
• The Buzzer. The new majority may reconsider the Council’s use of a buzzer that restricts public comments to three minutes.