23-Year-Old in Charge of N.J. Town

The police officer on the corner of South Orange's town center spots 23-year-old Alex Torpey instantly as he exits Village Diner, and calls out as he approaches: "Hey, Mr. President!"

Noticing the surveillance camera the officer is helping install, Torpey instantly launches into a detailed analysis of security mechanisms and data regulations the city could implement to keep residents safe while also protecting their privacy.

It will be Torpey's job to address those and other concerns when he's sworn in as village president on Monday, making him one of the youngest municipal leaders in New Jersey history. The village president acts like a mayor in South Orange, a middle-class suburb of about 16,000 residents outside New York City.

"I'm sure he'll have lots of good ideas," said South Orange retiree Paul Halesky, 74. "The fact he got elected means he's savvy."

A new media consultant, graduate student and volunteer emergency medical technician, Torpey edged out township Trustee Janine Bauer by less than 1 percentage point in Tuesday's municipal election.

The decision to run for elected office when most of his political opponents are twice or three times his age came after Torpey graduated in 2009 from Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., where he served two terms as student government president. Upon moving back to South Orange, where he lived from age 10, Torpey became a regular fixture at the library board and public safety committee, eventually joining both.

"I would go to meetings, especially in relation to I.T. and media things and make a suggestion, and they'd say, 'That's just not how we do things,'" Torpey recalled. "That is a bit of a hot button for me. That should really never be said."

And so Torpey plans to solve the northern New Jersey community's fiscal and security problems with the same tools he used to win election: social media, new technology and strategic marketing. For example, his campaign employed NationBuilder, special software that ties social media, email lists and fundraising into one online platform.

In addition to canvassing the community on foot, Torpey engaged in what he calls "virtual door-knocking," sending Facebook friend requests to residents he'd never met to introducing himself and his platform. He said it's more personal than the traditional political meet-and-greet, because voters can see what they have in common with the candidate.

South Orange's municipal elections are non-partisan, and Torpey is registered as an independent. He describes himself as socially liberal with a libertarian bent, and says when voters ask him what he'll do to lower taxes, he responds with a different question:

"What can the government do, including property taxes, to lower your cost of living?"

Like most politicians in New Jersey, Torpey has tall order awaiting him. South Orange's $31 million budget faces a gap of about $1.7 million, Bauer said. Although she lost to Torpey in her bid for village president, Bauer will retain her seat on the Board of Trustees.

"It's going to be a very difficult job and obviously I'll be there, with Alex, helping," Bauer said. "I never thought his age was any problem, and I never made age an issue in the campaign."

Torpey said the village can cut costs by using technology more wisely. He's already teaching police to use Twitter to track and pre-empt "flash mobs" — seemingly spontaneous gatherings of hundreds of teenagers that have become problematic for police. Torpey hopes to use computerized records to cut down on data entry and other costs.

But he also expects tax revenues can get a boost from business he'll attract to South Orange through social media and a revamped website. On Saturday nights when the downtown area hosts concerts, Torpey plans to be there with a Flip video camera, creating videos he can use to build up the town's "online buzz."

"It's a mindset of government where they engage in passive communication. They post to a website and expect everyone will see it," Torpey said. "I know that's not how it works, and if that's how I operated I wouldn't have a single client."

Since the village president takes no salary, Torpey will continue his work at Veracity Media, a marketing and new media consulting firm he founded. He also plans to continue volunteering 60 hours a month as an emergency rescuer, and taking classes toward a master's degree in public administration at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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