Getting Into Government

April 30, 2018
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Young women from nine high schools spent a day at Monmouth Regional last week discussing opportunities for women in politics and public policy. Photo by Jay Cook

By Jay Cook

High School Girls Encouraged To Consider Politics |

TINTON FALLS – A new generation of civic-minded young women got to spend a day last week with political veterans who want to show them how to start making an impact in the world.

The event at Monmouth Regional High School was sponsored by the 12th annual Running and Winning conference sponsored by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) of Northern Monmouth County, the Junior League of Monmouth County, the Greater Red Bank League of Women Voters of New Jersey and the Red Bank Chapter of Hadassah.

“Women are 51 percent of the population and their voices should be heard where decisions are made,” said Marian Wattenbarger of the AAUW, at the day-long, nonpartisan event that brought together about 60 female students from nine area high schools and female legislators and policy makers from the Two River area. “And I would say the events in the last few years have clearly raised interest.”

The conference zeroed in on educating young women about their meaningful voices and how they can make differences in their communities, said Linda Bricker, a member of the Junior League of Monmouth County.

“To really affect change, sometimes you need to reach a point of becoming elected to a position to change laws,” she said.

And those young women got a taste of the action. After meeting female councilmembers, mayors and state assemblywomen, the girls broke off into 14 smaller groups to discuss changing specific policy important to them.

They were tasked with petitioning a mock school board about an ongoing, concerning issue. The possible choices were about mental health issues in school, school safety, environmental issues and increasing inclusivity.

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The one topic that garnered the most attention – considering current national events – was mental health awareness in students. Eight groups focused on that issue.

Wattenbarger and other members from the Running and Winning steering committee admitted they were expecting a trend, especially considering the Parkland, Florida school shooting on Feb. 14 and the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School Shooting the day after the conference on April 20.

“This is a time in which there is clearly polarization in the country,” said Wattenbarger, “but we come together and are all committed to helping women find their voices.”

Women legislators from the Two River area spoke with high school students about their paths to elected office. Some of the officials who attended were, from left to right, Fair Haven Councilwoman Susan Sorensen, Hazlet Deputy Mayor Sue Kiley, Monmouth County Surrogate Rosemarie Peters and Atlantic Highlands Mayor Rhonda Le Grice. Photo by Jay Cook

NEW JERSEY AND WOMEN LEGISLATORS

New Jersey has been one of the more progressive states for women involvement in politics over the last decade. Data from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University indicates the Garden State ranked 16th for the most female legislators at the state level: 29.2 percent of the state Legislature and Assembly is female.

Both of New Jersey’s first two lieutenant governors are women – Kim Guadagno and Sheila Oliver – and female officials comprise a third of Gov. Phil Murphy’s 24-member cabinet. Additionally, 82 of the 566 municipalities in New Jersey, or 14.5 percent, are led by female mayors.

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While figures may be increasing compared to years past, many involved in the Running and Winning steering committee hope more women in Monmouth County step up.

“We are intelligent, compassionate, organized and innovative,” said Sue Flynn, also of the Junior League of Monmouth County. “Having more women in leadership positions can only make our country and the world a better place.”

The best way to educate the younger generation, Wattenbarger found, has been to create a pipeline with current legislators, showcasing how women can be successful in politics.

About 15 different female elected and appointed officials took turns meeting with the small groups of students during the morning session. The conversations ranged from issues in their towns or districts to their specific roads to elected office.

Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso (R-13) took one of those unique paths. After moving to Holmdel in the early 1990s, she joined her local parent-teacher association and volunteered to be what she called “the cupcake lady.” She eventually worked her way up to the Holmdel Township Committee, then the Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders and most recently, the State Assembly.

“They need to have a role model, somebody that has been there, done that, and is honest with them,” DiMaso said of her message to the young girls. “It’s not always easy. There are days the laundry doesn’t always get done or your dinner’s later than it should be and it’s OK. You’ll come out on the other end.”

Involvement in the community is key, stressed Red Bank Borough Councilwoman Kathy Horgan. The longtime Democrat jumped right into volunteer work after moving there in 1999 and has not looked back.

Horgan, the only female on Red Bank’s governing body, believes more women should take a chance and get involved in public policy.

“What I want women to know is that they can make a difference,” said Horgan. “I know, that sounds trite, but it’s true. Women are nurturing, more willing to compromise and listen.”


This article was first published in the April 26 – May 3, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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