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Open Mike

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By Michael Tessler

Michael Tessler

My great-grandfather Louis arrived at Ellis Island at the onset of the Great War. He grew up in the predominantly Jewish community of Sighet. This small region of Hungary (now Romania) had been occupied and reoccupied by many countries throughout the 20th century. Sighet, however, remained largely the same. Its tight Jewish community maintained its traditions, history and, most importantly, faith.

Louis’ family sent him away in fear he would be drafted into the brewing conflict. So with what money he had, he traveled 1,000 miles from Hungary to the bustling port of Hamburg in Germany. One can only imagine how dangerous that trip must have been — navigating Europe as it began to rip at the seams. He survived though and boarded a ship destined for the promised land of America.

Like so many before him he arrived in New York City. Even as I write this, I smile at the thought of his first gaze upon the Statue of Liberty. At the time, just another face among the huddled masses … to me, the very reason I exist.

Assimilation wasn’t easy. He ended up marrying a woman from the same village and they started a family together. Their child Sam was a tremendous source of brightness in an otherwise unforgiving city.

Above, back row, from left, Pauline, Irene, Louis; front row, from left, Melvin and Max, circa 1929. Photo courtesy of the Tessler family

Louis’ family kept him going. He worked long and painful hours for a fur company in Manhattan. Before unions, before labor laws and before regulations — he inhaled dangerous chemicals daily as he dyed the fur, leaving him with chronic health problems.

His American Dream devolved quickly though as his home was consumed by a fire and with it his wife and only child. One can only imagine his dread. Thousands upon thousands of miles away from his only remaining family, he committed himself to rebuilding his life, and by extension, creating mine.

Louis remarried and had two children with my great-grandmother ­— my grandpa, Melvin Tessler and his brother Max. They grew up on Riverside Drive, both lovers of the city’s growing jazz scene.

Through an unfortunate reality, my great-grandfather wasn’t wanted in this country. Many anti-Semites peddled Jewish conspiracies, believing them to be an enormous danger to American society. When my grandfather was a little boy, Louis took him to work at the fur factory so his son could see what he did. His boss, however, hated the Jews and made a point of humiliating my great-grandfather in front of his son. He never took him to the factory again.

Though Louis was sent to America to be saved from joining a global conflict, it was a painful irony that both his sons were drafted into the army and became American soldiers in World War II.

Mel Tessler while serving in the US Army during WWII. Photo courtesy of the Tessler family

My grandfather Mel served proudly in Europe, where he developed trench foot, almost losing his feet to rot. Around his neck he wore the Star of David, his dog tags and a pillbox containing cyanide tablets in the event he was captured by the Nazis, knowing full well he’d be tortured for information if they knew of his Jewish ancestry. His brother Max served in North Africa where he contracted a malaria type disease. These young boys, the sons of refugee immigrants, served a nation that just a generation prior had not welcomed their father.

My Grandpa Mel would go on to become the head of the English Department at Port Jefferson High School and married my Grandma Sally, a teacher at Scraggy Hill Elementary. No doubt some of my readers had them as teachers.

In his class, he’d have the students read the book “Night” by Elie Wiesel, a celebrated Holocaust survivor who dedicated his life to serving humanity. Several years ago I had the great fortune of being invited to the United Nations, where I heard Mr. Wiesel speak. In the halls of the General Assembly his voice echoed “never again.” It was more than just a phrase but a perpetual call to action, one that we are all responsible to heed. I’ve taken that to heart.

What I did not know at the time was that Elie Wiesel and I shared something in common. He too was from Sighet, my ancestral home. In 1944, the Third Reich occupied Hungary and decimated its Jewish population, first by forcing them into ghettos and then eventually to the concentration camp of Auschwitz. Whatever family remained perished there during the Final Solution.

Whether by gas chamber in Auschwitz or by sniper fire in Aleppo … murder is still murder and is equal in the eyes of God. No man is greater than the other just because of their faith or any more deserving of our compassion. No civilized society, especially one built on the principles of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” can remain ignorant of the world at large. To do so undermines not just our nation’s values but the essence of our humanity itself.

We cannot forget that our complacency, and more precisely, our fear, allowed countless innocents to die as waves of Jewish refugees were turned away from the United States. We must show bravery like those who risked their lives to hide Jewish families in their basements. If we are so scared that we are unable to help, then we have already lost, for without humanity we are nothing.

Had America not welcomed in my great-grandfather all those years ago, he too would be in the huddled masses lying dead outside Auschwitz. Do not forget, history has its eyes on you.

By Michael Tessler

During the 2016 vice presidential debate, then Governor Mike Pence said “…the old Russian bear doesn’t die, he just hibernates.” This would-be proverb struck a chord with me and led me on a several month research expedition to further understand the collapse of the Soviet Union. How could a global superpower disappear from the Earth with just a few strokes of a pen?

Today, I’m reminded of another hibernating bear — California. Though sparsely mentioned in our textbooks, there were 25 days in 1846 when a sovereign Republic of California existed. Like-minded Californians rose up against Mexico in what is known as the Bear Flag Revolt. Their state flag to this day still proudly waves a grizzly bear above the words “California Republic.” Shortly thereafter they were annexed by the United States and became an integral part of our country.

How does this relate? Well, on Dec. 26, 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved. Its centralized government oversaw 15 Soviet republics that were partially self-governed, not so dissimilar from the function of our state governments. People thought it impossible, but the massive Soviet superpower was toppled (with relative ease) and was replaced with 15 sovereign nations. It raises the terrifying prospect: If it happened there, could it happen here? That brings us back to the other sleeping bear.

Hypothetically, if California were an independent republic, it would have the world’s sixth-largest economy. Its population is greater than that of neighboring Canada. Its agriculture industry surpasses that of any other American state. Its national guardsmen and women are composed of 18,000 soldiers and 4,900 air force personnel. In addition there are over 190,100 Californians enlisted in the United States military and reserves, which is roughly the size of the United Kingdom’s standing military.

There is a growing #CalExit movement that would grant California its autonomy following a voting referendum in 2018. Just three weeks into the Trump Administration, and one out of three Californians are in favor of secession according to a recent poll. This number is alarming, to say the least. In an age when populism rules, when the United Kingdom could exit the European Union and the United States could elect Donald Trump … the prospect is not just hypothetical but a reality we must address.

Californians, like many Americans, are feeling increasingly disenfranchised by the current administration and the congressional gerrymandering that has occurred nationwide. For the second time in 16 years, the winner of the popular vote, the winner in the State of California, was not selected president.

For years, California, unlike many states, has given more tax dollars to the federal government than it has received in return. Fundamentally bankrolling other states and paying for military campaigns are things Californians are staunchly against. Whether or not their grievances are justifiable is a determination for you, the reader. They should, however, be taken seriously, just as Brexit should have been and all populist movements of the past.

Without California, the United States as we know it would fall into disarray. Its electoral votes and ample congressional seats maintain the Democratic Party’s ability to remain competitive. To my Republican and/or conservative readers, I’m sure that sounds wonderful, but we must consider the larger picture. Without competition, our federal government becomes dangerously lopsided. No matter who the supermajority, accountability decreases and entire segments of our society would feel underrepresented. Political isolation has never ended well for any country, look no further than the Soviet Union for that lesson.

Just because we are the United States does not mean we are immune to collapse. Our nation’s bond was forged in the fires of wars. To each man his colony was his country. It took leadership, it took George Washington and Abraham Lincoln to unify us and maintain our nation. Today one can’t help but feel we’ve grown very far apart. How we can we pledge our lives and property to one another if we’re unwilling to show at minimum decency and respect?

Our federal government should strive to make separation an unjustifiable cause. To accomplish that requires patriotism over partisanship, rights over might, leadership not power plays and genuine liberty and justice for all. Disagreements are a natural and healthy part of democracy, but will get us nowhere if we treat compromise as a cuss word. No matter who maintains the majority, the views of the minority must be heard and represented.

President Trump is in a unique position to mend the wounds of a divided land. To cement a legacy far superior than that of any great wall or golden tower. He is the leader of a fractured state, one in which so easily the political majority could enforce its rule upon the minority. He must show himself to be humbled and practice civility and respect with his opposition. In return, they must learn to do the same. They must be brought to the table rather than fired for sharing opposing views.

That’s what separates an American president from a Soviet premier. His actions moving forward are paramount to ensuring the survival of the union as we know it.

No child should ever ask: “What was it like to grow up in the former United States?”

Stock photo

By Michael Tessler

America at its finest has always been a series of contradictions. We are a democracy, but not directly. We are a republic, but not entirely. We are capitalists, but not wholly. We are free, but not always. America has never been an absolute anything and I think with good reason.

All one must do is look toward the grand and gleaming white rotunda of our Capitol Building, adorned with a bronze statue of Freedom, to see the irony of our union. Though an uncomfortable truth, the epicenter of freedom and democracy in the world was built by those who were not free. Slavery is a stain on our nation. Some would rather ignore its uncomfortable truths, refuse to acknowledge its lasting impacts, and remain blind to the errors of our past. Others choose to let its singularity define us.

In the modern era (and in most eras), there are those who comfortably hide behind our flag. They refuse to acknowledge its shortcomings, believing that somehow our imperfections make us weak and/or dilute the idea of America itself. Others have given up on the idea of our nation altogether and have subscribed to the self-deprecating belief that America is a sham, that our misdeeds are too plentiful to salvage our republic.

One question, in particular, uncomfortably encapsulates this whole concept and in a lot of ways the modern American conflict: Can George Washington still be considered a great man if he owned slaves?

This is an unsettling question for some. Personally, I have always viewed him as an almost God-like figure. Who against all odds led an army of ragtags to victory over the world’s greatest superpower? Who had the opportunity to rule for life and establish a monarchy but rather ensured the peaceful transition of power and secured the blessings of liberty for generations to come? Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew he owned slaves. That was a fact I wanted to ignore. More than anything I didn’t want to second guess the pureness of my personal hero, our nation’s first president, a man I had placed on a pedestal of great renown.

Yet, we are doing our country a disservice if we remain blind to uncomfortable truths: George Washington owned more slaves than any other American president — 318 slaves at the time of his death. For perspective, that is roughly the same population as the freshman, sophomore and junior classes of Port Jefferson High School combined.

“Everyone had slaves back then!” is an argument I’ve often heard. You don’t need to look any further than to John Adams or Alexander Hamilton to know there were mainstream abolitionist. Many recognized that slavery was a misdeed, a criminal act even. This fact is a source of great contention among Americans, but I think both sides are the missing the point.

The greatest accomplishment of our nation’s forefathers was their creation of a system of government that would allow future Americans to correct their sins. Using their model, we have successfully abolished slavery and Jim Crow laws, given women and African Americans the right to vote, landed a man on the moon, defeated the Third Reich, created the most professional and well-trained military, built great cities, and fostered the education of the world’s most renowned thinkers, inventors and dreamers.

Our Capitol Building, while built by slaves, is the very same building in which their freedom was finally granted. Progress isn’t always easy, and the work of it is never truly done. In a nation that abhors absolutes, it strikes me as a great misstep to allow absolutists to define us.

George Washington means many things to many people, his entire existence perhaps symbolic of the American story. After his death, he had granted his slaves their most basic right to freedom. After his death, the system of government he helped create would forever grant slaves their basic right to freedom.

Like many, President Washington feared that the abolition of slavery would rip our young country apart. Those fears were not ill founded, as our country did tear apart during the brutal American Civil War. We as individuals must come to our own conclusion, but to reduce our complex history to a series of absolutes strikes me as an injustice to history itself.

America’s genius was not crafted in a single summer day in Philadelphia. It was earned through trial and error, war and bloodshed, broken bloodied chains and crackled whips and the tireless debate and civil discourse of the American people.

We are a dynamic and ever-changing people. Our sins do not define us, but that does not absolve us of them either. We must face the repercussions of our actions as a collective. Abraham Lincoln fought the war George Washington could not, just as we today are forced to confront the conflicts our fathers and forefathers could not.

We did not want to inherit these struggles, no generation does, but how we choose to move forward is what truly makes us American. Our ability to embrace our imperfections and strive ever forward in spite of them, with the endless dream of achieving a more perfect union. Now that is America the Beautiful.

On Nov. 8, please honor our servicemen and women by casting your ballot. Feel free to share your thoughts with me at MJT@TBRNewspapers.com.

Michael Tessler, far left, at the Icon Oscars at Walt Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Florida. Photo from Michael Tessler

Transcript:

[Movie trailer voice] In a world, on an island … a long island, there is a man, a curly-haired man, on a bold and courageous journey to create the best column ever written. Will this Jonah-Hill-looking fellow overcome his childhood lisp, will he make audiences laugh, find out in the next exciting chapter of OPEN MIKE: The Column.

To quote the late great Robin Williams, “I do voices.”  What does that even mean? [Yoda voice] Ermm, master of voices I am, make you laugh I shall [Yoda laugh]. This fascination of mine first manifested itself at the young age of 5, shortly after my youngest sister was born, leaving me with a horrendous case of middle child syndrome. My parents literally learned to tune out my voice, leaving me with no option but to invent and discover new ones.

My first real character voice was an impersonation of my Uncle Jean Pierre. His thick Parisian accent was like nothing I had ever heard before. So I began to replicate it. Weeks later and after a few thousand attempts, I figured it out. My face scrunched upward, my nose lunged toward the sky, and his voice came out of mouth — (in heavy French accent) [French laughter] “Bonjour my name Jean Pierre, and I am proud Frenchman!” this caricature version of my uncle became a hit at family parties.

From then on my range of voices grew 10-fold. Every movie I watched, every video game I played, every foreign accent I heard, I absorbed and replicated. Character voices became an outlet for this otherwise socially awkward child. There’s no better feeling than brightening a room and having the power to produce laughter. No matter your age there’s no way not to laugh at the dueling Michael Myers characters Shrek/Fat Bastard bursting into a room shouting: “Get in my belly, you stupid fat donkey!”

Voices weren’t always for an audience though. Most of the time they were just for me. One year while re-watching the  “Muppet’s Christmas Carol” (arguably the greatest film ever made), I became obsessed with learning the Muppet voices — starting with Kermit, Fozzie Bear, Beaker, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and inevitably Miss Piggy. Learning Miss Piggy was the first time I ever made the connection between voices and voice actors. Frank Oz, who famously gave life to Master Yoda in “The Empire Strikes Back” also played the sassy frog-loving pig we know and loathe. [In Yoda voice, then Miss Piggy voice] “Ermm, pigs, pigs lead to pork, pork leads to bacon, and bacon leads to the dark side, Kermie, don’t you love mwah?” How stunning, to hear how the voices connect to one another.

  But truthfully with time and practice anybody can do a line or two. What distinguishes professionals from amateurs is the ability to carry out any kind of dialogue, conveying any kind of emotions, and being able to do so without a second thought. Rehearsing this looks like pure insanity but is beyond rewarding. My favorite example is of Andy Serkis, who played the dual personalities of Gollum in “Lord of the Rings.” “Frodo’s our friend! Yes Yes! GOLLUM! GOLLUM! Stupid fat Hobbit(es)!” After hearing his voice, I knew I needed to up my game.

There’s literally voice recordings on my phone of every character you can possibly imagine, communicating with one another! That’s my favorite part honesty, having great historical figures and pop culture icons interacting with one another. For example:

Richard Nixon: I don’t know Bill, that wife Hillary of yours strikes me as a real crook.

Bill Clinton: Oh Rich Nixon you are so funny. If candidates were metaphorical fast food items, my wife Hillary would be a Big Mac.

Jack Kennedy: Do you mind if I chime in here? Rich you look like you sweating again.

Richard Nixon: I bet you think you’re SO hysterical Jack Kennedy.

Fozzie Bear: Wakka Wakka!

Richard Nixon: Why is there a Muppet in this scene!

Kermit: Sorry about that everybody, wrong sketch! Although while we’re here, I’d lobby you about an issue I’m passionate about, it’s not easy green!

Bernie Sanders: Hello, adorable green frog. My name Senator Bernard Senators and the top 1 percent of mammals are being treated better than 99% percent of all amphibians. I like to wave my arms in the air like an inflatable tube man at a used car dealership.

… scene!

In my life I’ve been blessed to have performed in front of thousands of people. One of the most rewarding experiences was performing a musical parody of Disney characters on a stage once graced by Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker, The Joker), Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian, Harvey Dent), Jim Cummings (Winnie the Pooh, Tigger), Warwick Davis (Wicket, Professor Flitwick) and so many other vocal greats. There is nothing more magical than the look in a child’s eyes when they hear their favorite character speak to them, calling them by name. One can only hope it inspires them the same way my [in accent] French Uncle Jean Pierre did!

So, as my former employer Mickey Mouse would always say, “Thanks folks, see ya real soon! Buh-bye!”

TBR Interactive: This column is the first in our interactive series. Hear the column come to life by scanning the QR code or use the link featured below.

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A field surgeon (Tom Leonbruno from the 3rd NY Regiment) prepares for emergency surgery during filming of the Culper Spy Adventure. Photo by Frankie Martinez

By Michael Tessler

Textbooks are dense things. Heavy, expensive and filled to the brim with names, dates and locations most people don’t care to commit to memory. For some though, those pages are more than just ink on paper. They are our gateway to the stories of the untold billions that came before us. Each textbook holds a glimpse into their lives, a testament to their struggles, sacrifices, triumphs, dreams and defeats.

About three months ago I was given the extraordinary privilege of bringing to life a unique chapter in our local and national history: first through research, followed by writing and now through a labor-intensive yet nonetheless fun film production. This project will create something that helps history escape the binds of textbooks, transcending into an unforgettable experience.

Though I am not quite ready to share all the details, I am excited to announce that beginning this summer families can enjoy an interactive digital attraction known as the Culper Spy Adventure. This educational and entertaining experience will bring to life General Washington’s secret Setauket spy ring and will recruit you and your family into the starring roles of your very own Culper spy mission — and let me say, the only thing more fun than experiencing it, is producing it.

So how do you go about filming something that takes place in the 18th century? How does one even start that process? Before you can move forward, you must always look to the past. Where was that moment that captured my imagination? When did I know I was hooked on history?

A call to action: Benjamin Tallmadge (David Morrissey) and Caleb Brewster (George Overin) take up arms against those damn lobsterbacks. Photo by Frankie Martinez
A call to action: Benjamin Tallmadge (David Morrissey) and Caleb Brewster (George Overin) take up arms against those damn lobsterbacks. Photo by Frankie Martinez

My time-traveling journey began long before I became the unlikely producer of this wonderful and unique project. From a young age I remember others describing my family as “Disney people.” Mickey Mouse had an almost oppressive presence in our household. He was on our plates, silverware, cups and would annually adorn a Santa costume while plopped down beside our menorah and Disney-themed Christmas tree (complete with a Tinkerbell tree topper and Lion King ornaments). It was somewhere around that time that my dad was first diagnosed with a rare but operable brain tumor.

My parents were understandably uncertain of how to explain such a serious subject to an emotionally fragile kindergartner. So naturally, my parents broke the news to my brother and I in a place that would ensure distraction and comfort, our home away from home — Disney World. You didn’t have to be very old to understand that something was wrong. You could feel the sadness in their tone as they explained to me what may happen and the risks of the surgery ahead. We tried to make the best of it, and made a genuine effort to have fun. During that trip we made our regular stop in Epcot, my favorite of the four parks.

Inside the giant white sphere that oversees that park is Spaceship Earth. This slow-moving tram ride transports you through the ages, complete with animatronics playing out vital scenes from throughout human civilization.

You see the Phoenicians inventing the alphabet, the Greeks experimenting with theater, the sacking of Rome (which smells oddly like bacon), the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, all the way to the modern era and beyond.

From the eyes of a kindergartner it was so much more than a slow-moving tram ride, it was my very own DeLorean time machine. Suddenly this six- or seven-year-old had become a master of time and space. What an extraordinary gift to be given, a chance to see history come to life. So here we are many years later. My dad has since recovered and my boyhood days are long over. Yet I’m given the awesome responsibility of building something that will give other children that same bewildering sense of excitement and magic.

Keep an eye out for Part Two as I discuss bringing to life local heroes like Abraham Woodhull, Caleb Brewster and Alexander Hamilton. Working alongside the incredible folks in the 3rd NY Regiment living history group, the Huntington Militia, as well our some of our great local historians and organizations.

We are true time travelers and are beyond excited to share our adventures with you. Until next time, happy time travels! Looking forward to writing more. Share your thoughts with me at MJT@TBRNewspapers.com.

Michael Tessler is the special projects manager for TBR News Media, a founder and former political consultant for the Continuum Group and the former president of the International Youth Congress.

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By Michael Tessler

With a Congress that fails to do its job, a Supreme Court that has become increasingly politicized and a president who can only pursue his legislative agenda by bypassing the legislature, we have effectively compromised our federal government. “Checks and balances” have been replaced with bounced checks and a political game of seesaw — one wherein achieving compromise is near impossible. Lobbyists have procured tremendous power as the American people have all but ignored the huge significance of local and state elections.

So let’s break down some numbers. Back in 2014 voter turnout in New York was only 28.8 percent. We were not just electing a governor but also filling all 27 of our congressional seats. That same year, roughly 6,730 miles away the Afghan government held its election. People risked their lives going to the polls. Throughout their nation the Taliban led attacks on polling stations. Voters ran the risk of having their finger removed if they were found by the Taliban and identified as a voter. So what was their turnout? 58 percent. That’s right folks. In a nation where you could literally be dismembered for voting, they achieved a turnout rate 29.2 percent greater than our own here in New York. So what’s our excuse? Fear of parking tickets? We can do better.

This issue isn’t just isolated to New York. All across the nation we ignore the importance of our local and state government. Why? It’s extremely boring. You don’t see Martin Sheen or Kevin Spacey going around accepting acting roles as a county treasurer or state assemblyman. Media has romanticized the presidency. We’ve made it our central focus to the point where all other offices fall to the wayside.

To understand the significance of state government, look no further than the collapse of every major world superpower from the Egyptians to the Romans, to the Ottomans, to the Soviets. What makes us different isn’t the fact that we have a democracy: 123 countries have democracy. What makes us different is our unique system of federalism. Now I know what you’re thinking. “This is the most boring thing I’ve ever read. Please make it stop.” No, I can’t. It’s just too important.

So I’m sure somewhere deep in your subconscious you’re asking yourself, “If federalism is so great, why doesn’t everybody use it?” That’s a great question. Just look to our friends in the European Union. They’re attempting what I call reverse federalism. They’re struggling to achieve the unity that our system has had for over 200 years.

Our founders were brilliant in that they had the foresight to create a centralized government to unify us financially, militarily and culturally. Europe has had literally thousands of years of internal strife that makes genuine friendship difficult for many of its member states (e.g., thanks a lot, Germany). Just imagine how difficult the job of our government would be if suddenly California decided it wanted to opt-out of the dollar in exchange for its own currency.

Europe, try as they may, will likely be unable to recreate what we have here. Our union was forged during our revolution and with each conflict that followed (with the uncomfortable exception of the Civil War).

Federalism ensures the survival of this great American experiment because the likelihood of 50 self-sufficient states collapsing simultaneously is slim to none. We have to remind our politicians that our power does not come from the top but from the bottom. If our federal government fails in the task of governing, their gridlock should not deter the whole union. Unfortunately, there is yet a political party that has seriously adopted this policy in the 21st century.

We don’t need big government or small government. We need smart government. For example, in terms of health care, one size doesn’t fit all. The health care needs of New Yorkers will be different than the health care needs of Floridians (well actually most Floridians are New Yorkers so this might not be the best example, but you get my point). We shouldn’t pretend each state is the same. Nor should we pretend that the federal government can pass a budget let alone manage a national health care system (e.g., the genius who built HealthCare.gov). Surely, the best hope for America is one that has been there all along. So this election vote not from the top down but from the bottom up.

IN SHORT:

Trump Notes: Civility cannot exist when Americans confuse bigotry with bluntness. We aren’t perceived as weak because our military isn’t big enough. We’re perceived as weak because we’ve allowed our sacred institution of democracy to become a warm-up act for the Kardashians. This vitriol incites violence. Now more than ever we need national conversations, not national disagreements.

In brighter news: I’m a Jew who gave up pizza for lent. If that doesn’t make America great, I’m not sure what will. Looking forward to writing more. Share your thoughts with me at MJT[at]TBRNewspapers[dot]com.

Michael Tessler is the Special Projects Manager for TBR News Media, a founder and former political consultant for the Continuum Group firm, and the former President of the International Youth Congress.

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