(Copied from South Jersey Magazine website. Original article appears behind registration firewall.)
Blue Blogging Blues
…From the pages of South Jersey Magazine…
This is the tale of Washington Township’s Juan Melli, a man lost in his own personal blue period-and loving every second of it.
I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up the phone to call Juan Melli, Princeton graduate and founder of BlueJersey.com, a political Web site born out of a single blog that has become a prominent resource for local Democrats. We had corresponded a few times via e-mail and IM, but it’s tough to gauge personality and tone online-even with a plethora of emoticons at our disposal.
Gotta love the technology age.
Makes me wonder what would have happened if the telephone was invented after e-mail. I can almost hear the excited conversations between friends now… “Wow, you pick up this contraption and you can actually hear the person’s voice on the other end!”
“No way! That’s incredible.”
So, I picked up the device I usually reserve for text-messaging and downloading ringtones and dialed Juan’s telephone number. “Hi Jenna,” came the surprisingly youthful and easygoing voice on the other end. With the need for introductions out of the way thanks to Juan’s adept use of caller ID, I put my interviewer’s cap on and we got right down to business.
I began with the obligatory questions about why he started the blog, assuming that, like most people who dabble in politics, he had some high profile political aspirations he was hoping to pursue. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
A well-spoken, mild-mannered man with a boyish charm that would certainly befit an aspiring politician, Melli admitted he is more of a “behind-the-scenes” guy who essentially started BlueJersey.com by accident-at least as it exists now. “I never had a vision to create such a vast Web site,” he began. “I like politics and had something to say, so rather than just getting frustrated and upset and ranting about the situation, I decided to start writing about it. I basically wanted a constructive venue for venting.” He chuckled and continued. “Isn’t that why most people start blogging in the first place?”
As his posts started getting attention, however, and as other locals who also had “something to say” began contacting Melli to share their own views, BlueJersey.com was born. “So, it sort of created itself,” he mused. “All I did was essentially provide a forum where other like-minded individuals could post their opinions on this topic too.
“But the opinions of all the bloggers are not always in line with mine,” he stressed. “And I support that 100 percent. I do not censor the site at all. In fact, people post things I disagree with all the time, and I actually like that. If people are disagreeing with you, it forces you to come up with better arguments, and that’s healthy for a good debate.” Well, that certainly makes sense, I thought. Articulate, level-headed, likable. Melli certainly had all the makings of a politician. Except one. Near as I could tell, Juan was entirely spin-free, lacking whatever chromosome it is that allows political candidates to weave a magical web of circular logic around you to avoid actually talking about the issues. In fact, Juan takes the exact opposite approach. Full disclosure and complete candor is his mode of choice. And rather than running for the hills (or some summer hideaway in Maine) when the “big issue” comes up, Juan actually takes it head on, steps up to the podium, and makes his opinion known, coupled with a balanced and fact-based rationale for his stance. Imagine that.
Take marriage and civil unions, for example-a topic on which Melli went head-to-head with Peter Sprugg, vice president of the Family Research Council, in a televised debate on the Regional News Network (RNN). Juan makes no secret of his strong support of gay marriage, and it’s ruffled more than a few feathers since September 2005 when BlueJersey.com made its debut on the World Wide Web.
“I’ve definitely gotten my share of hate mail about this,” Melli noted. “It’s a topic that can get very heated, but I don’t let it bother me.” Not letting it bother him is an understatement. Melli admitted to actually stirring the pot a bit when nasty e-mails hit his inbox. “Sometimes I’ll send a response that just says ‘muah’,” he laughed jokingly. But he wasn’t joking.
“You mean, you don’t respond with the same balanced answers that you give in a debate?” I inquired.
“Not at all.” He laughed again. “They usually aren’t interested in engaging in a productive discussion on the topic. They just want to tell me how wrong and immoral I am for thinking the way I do. So I show them that it doesn’t phase me with a pithy, unexpected response.”
How very unpolitician of him, like the way he seeks out-and seems to relish in-controversy. Last year, for example, during the Bob Menendez/Tom Cain senate campaign, Melli got wind that Jill Hazelbaker from Cain’s office had opened three separate BlueJersey.com accounts for the sole purpose of slamming Menendez. That’s when Melli publicly exposed her. And by “got wind,” I mean Melli employed his Internet sleuthing skills to find the IP and e-mail addresses Hazelbaker used to register, which he traced directly back to her office.
And by “publicly exposed her,” I mean he outed her right on the site with a notation next to all of her “anonymous” posts that read, “This is from Jill Hazelbaker from Tom Cain’s office.” If ever the term “kibosh” were applicable, it would be in this instance. Juan Melli most certainly put the kibosh on Jill Hazelbaker and her slanderous campaign tactics.
As one might expect, Hazelbaker’s office skirted the issue with a quick sound byte of, “It’s a blog; you can’t believe what’s posted on blogs.” Typical. Bureaucracy 101 at its best.
That was a pretty sensational story for what Melli still regards as a “small time” site. But with 2,176 registered users and between 1,000 and 1,500 unique visitors per day, BlueJersey.com is anything but small time. And when campaign representatives use the site to try and sway votes, that’s a pretty strong testament to the perception in the market of how significant BlueJersey.com has become for reaching the Democratic party in New Jersey. Influencing voters is CNN territory.
But when I asked what big plans Juan has in store for BlueJersey as a result of its impressive growth to date, he responded in his friendly, unassuming way with a “who knows.”
“The possibilities are endless, and I’m just kind of going with the flow,” he said. “If you had told me two years ago that I’d be on a list ahead of Donald Trump, I never would have imagined it-or believed it.” But that’s exactly what happened when PoliticsNJ.com published their “2007 Power List” of the most powerful political influencers in New Jersey (not including elected officials), on which Juan was number 17, beating Mr. Trump by three slots.
And the year before, Juan was also named “Politician of the Year” by Politics NJ. Now that’s impressive.
But despite the positive press and fame that Juan’s received with features in publications like The Philadelphia Inquirer, Courier Post, and a recent appearance on Fox-29, he remains the same person he was in 2005 when his blogging began. A passionate, down-to-earth citizen just trying to share his views and raise awareness of state politics. “At the end of the day,” Juan remarked, “I simply want to offer a forum for other people’s voices. That’s really what’s most important to me-even more so than getting my own views heard.”
And it seems Juan Melli is a bit of philanthropist as well.
“Too many people put the blinders on when it comes to state politics because they don’t think it’s as sexy as national politics,” he went on, the first hints of excitement bellowing from his low key demeanor. “But much of what’s happening on the federal level begins at the state, and I feel like federal is falling down on civil rights, climate change and stem cell research,” he stated emphatically. “And Jersey is leading the way in these areas.
“If BlueJersey.com can help local New Jersey residents realize how interesting and important it is to understand-and be part of-your state’s politics, I’ll consider this endeavor a huge success.”
That’s the kind of passion that can inspire a nation. So I prodded a bit more about whether he’d be open to at least the possibility of running for office at any point down the road. But once again, he firmly held his ground. “I wouldn’t want to go through the process that politicians go through,” he explained. “You’ll get smeared for anything in your history, and I wouldn’t want to drag my family through that.”
That’s certainly respectable, but what skeletons could possibly be lurking in this seemingly squeaky-clean citizen’s closet?
“Well, in college I had this blog,” Melli offered openly as visions of juicy details flitted through the transom of my overactive writer’s mind, “and my friends and I would pull innocent pranks and post photos of them. I’m sure that would be dredged up if I were to ever run!” He let out a hearty laugh.
I admit his response was a lot tamer than what I had concocted in my imagination, but certainly fitting of the amiable, mellow guy with whom I’d spent the past hour chatting. He was actually starting to feel like more of a buddy than an interviewee. And one thing’s for certain, whether he runs for office or not, Juan Melli and BlueJersey.com have definitely got my vote. And I’m a Republican!
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 4 Issue 10 (January, 2008). ???Author: Jenna Snowden; Photo by Mattie Studios, Inc. ?