Holly Schepisi is starting to roll up endorsements as she embarks on her bid to best incumbent State Senator Gerald Cardinale, the 86-year-old Demarest kingpin who has represented his constituents in the upper house for four decades. But according to Schepisi, a high-powered attorney, Assemblymember for nine years, and a Deputy Republican Leader, this was a battle she did not want to fight. It may also represent an opportunity for LD39 Republicans to ask—after so long in office, is it time for Cardinale, who has repeatedly been returned to Trenton by the voters, to step aside? The veteran lawmaker has no intention of doing so.
Schepisi spoke with InsiderNJ and told her story. “Four years ago, the senator had indicated that this was going to be his last run and we had had numerous conversations during that time. After the November election, I sat down with him at his home and was very candid and said what I decided to do moving forward would be based on what he was going to do. At the time, he indicated that his health hadn’t been great, COVID, it depended on redistricting, and a host of other things. We would talk and no decisions would be made.”
According to Schepisi, things changed shortly thereafter. “Within a couple days of that conversation he gave an interview saying that he was absolutely running for re-election. I had no heads-up and was as shocked as anybody. I continued to sort through what I was going to do. I had come to a juncture where I made a promise to myself and others when I ran for assembly that it would not be a lifetime appointment.”
If Cardinale should win the election, he will conclude his term in his nineties. It is unlikely that he will have designs for a political ascendancy going forward. It was on this principle that Schepisi felt that she should either push herself up the political ladder, or step aside for someone else. “I believe in moving up or moving out and elected officials have to term limit themselves if there are no term limits that are there. Having been in [the Assembly] for nine years, I came to the decision that it was time to move up or to get out. I started having some confidential conversations with other elected officials and people in the community as to which path would make the most sense.”
Schepisi said that her conversations were supportive and feedback she received suggested there was a belief that she could repair some of the damage the Republican Party has suffered in recent years. She said there was a need to reinvigorate the party and bring back people who left the GOP, either to become unaffiliated or Democrats. “We need to reach out to them in a compassionate way, and show that you can be compassionate and care about the issues and still be a fighter against bad policy. The more conversations I had with people, the more I realized it was a pathway I should take.” She claims that efforts to connect with Cardinale were in vain. “I continued to reach out to the senator to sit down and have conversations, but I think it leaked back to him that I was potentially considering running for senate. At that point he didn’t want to meet with me, kept putting off sitting down, saying that it wasn’t the right time, he needed more time to think. So, out of respect for him and everything he’s done, I said let me do that. Then somebody leaked the entire thing and at that point the battle lines got drawn.”
Dubbed “The Fighter” when she was among a list of possible candidates to run against Governor Murphy, Schepisi has strapped on her armor and taken up her lance. While a primary contest was not Schepisi’s preferred way forward, now that she is in it, she is committed to jousting with the incumbent senator and knocking him from the seat he has occupied since 1982. “I thought there was a way to do this behind the scenes that could’ve been a win for everybody, that was the pathway I was hoping we were able to take. Unfortunately, he has made it abundantly clear that there is zero chance of that occurring.”
Cardinale had previously dismissed Schepisi’s bid, according to North Jersey, where he allegedly said she was part of a “younger generation” that “wanted more” and she was trying to “stir the pot to jump a couple of steps.” Cardinale was born in the height of the Depression, a generation which saw the country emerge victorious from the mushroom clouds of the Second World War and come of age as America achieved a position of global preeminence, unmatched economic prosperity, and wrestle with contentious civil unrest. Schepisi is solidly in Generation X—the “latchkey generation” that set its combat boots and Kurt Cobain-flavored angst aside decades ago to pay down their mortgages and see their kids through high school. She said, “I find it a bit comical in light of the fact that he was my age when he ran for Senate after he had only been in the Assembly for two years. So, I’m not trying to jump ahead any steps.” Schepisi, having won the 2011 Assembly election and each race since, can assert that her own Assembly experience is greater than Cardinale’s was at the time he made his first run for Senate, making her more than ready to take on the position.
While all politics is local, the parties themselves have been nationalized—perhaps dangerously so. No two Republicans are the same, but the MAGA ball is, whether they like it or not, the ball that is in their court. How the party will choose to play it, or not play it, is a serious matter, especially in a state in which the Democrats have a serious advantage in registered voters and the Democratic Party leadership is swimming through the halls of state power with near impunity. “I think the most important thing is to be able to bring a leveling back. People are angry and upset, that’s how Trump got elected to begin with. We have, unfortunately in society, reached a point where everyone who is in the middle is largely silent because they don’t want to get involved in the day-to-day battles of the hardening positions on both sides. People in the middle who are the business owners and moms and dads of kids doing remote learning, the people who are out there who have stayed pretty politically neutral throughout the years, are looking for a voice for them.”
While many Republicans are uncomfortable addressing the orange elephant in the room, Schepisi was upfront about the shadow looming over the NJ GOP: the former president, now undergoing an unprecedented impeachment process. “There are a lot of people out there who may have liked President Trump’s policies but really hated his demeanor and the way he came across. I think we as a party, particularly in New Jersey, should focus on some of those policies that appeal to people and fight for them, but do it in a respectful way, and do it in a way that you can show that you can be compassionate for those who may not share your beliefs—and still go out there, and be aggressive, and fight hard against things that are harming them—I think that’s how you bring people back.”
Civil discourse may seem as distant as Cardinale’s foray into politics, but everyone agrees it is necessary. Schepisi critiqued the impact of social media and its effects on political conversation, joining the likes of Congressman Malinowski and State Senator Vin Gopal in accusing social media of degrading the nature of essential civic conversation. “Social media can be a great tool and in some ways has broken our world. I think oftentimes people will say through electronic means things that they would never say to one another in person. I think that has helped foster this animosity. That, coupled with labelling everyone—you can’t just disagree on a topic. You get called everything under the sun. I think that that has unfortunately also made it so everyone gets lumped together. People are lumped into those radical fringes just because they opposed a policy. That doesn’t get us to any sort of ground where you can have open, honest debate about the efficacy of a policy.”
Vitriolic cyber arguing has, alas, become a pastime like baseball. And, like sports, its glory is fleeting, largely inconsequential in real terms, and quickly drowned by the next contest. It has even become a cynical phrase of emotionally-charged futility to say “someone is wrong on the internet,” usually accompanied with a wry grin—or emoji, depending on whether or not one keyboard warrior even sees or knows the opponent on the other side. “People throughout the state and on all sides of the aisle talk about my Facebook wall,” Schepisi said of her personal social media account. “My wall is a microcosm of what is out there. I’m one of the few elected officials who keeps a totally open Facebook wall, I don’t censor or delete things, but sometimes the battles on my wall are surreal. People will fight on the most inane topics and will cross fight each other, where half the time they don’t even realize what the other one is saying. I first started seeing the impacts of it about six years ago and it has just escalated to a breaking point.”
It may be the case that entrenched, hardening positions and shouting contests have shaken the public’s faith in the institutions of the parties themselves. Cynicism is rampant in the 21st Century and sarcasm with a salty side of existential dread is de rigeuer among Millennials and Gen Z, the youngest voters. The Republican Party therefore needs to come to terms with itself and find its message for New Jerseyans if it is to avoid becoming a permanent opposition party. Third party gubernatorial candidates emerging on the right, such as David Winkler and the “Patriot Party,” clinging to their red MAGA hats and Trump flags, represent a dissatisfaction that the establishment GOP cannot afford to dismiss lightly, even if they may not mount a credible bid to take the chief’s chair in Trenton. Gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli himself took flak from Trump supporters for his pre-electoral criticism of then-candidate Donald Trump; then, when he appeared to be on board the Trump Train during the 2020 election, he was blasted by the likes of Tom Moran of the Star-Ledger who accused him of philosophical and personal integrity sacrificed for political expedience—fundamentally in vain anyway with Biden’s win. The end result? A fractured New Jersey Republican Party in turmoil. Schepisi, to her credit, is realistic enough to see it and acknowledge that it needs to be addressed.
“We’ve got the moderate vs. conservative vs. ‘Patriot Party’—I think the Republican Party in NJ is an umbrella of it all,” Schepisi said. “You can be exceptionally conservative and still argue for better ways of moving forward. In a state that is so blue, we can’t afford to write off segments of the party. We need to find a way to allow people’s voices to be heard within the party. Whether or not it is 2nd Amendment or fiscal issues, people aren’t going to agree on every single issue. How do we find that appropriate balance in not mandating ideological purism—which is something you don’t really see the Democrats in New Jersey doing, and I think that’s why they’ve been successful. We have to make sure we don’t alienate voters who are Trump supporters and are still very upset about the election, but we also have to have the voice to bring back those who left because of Trump. That’s the only way that we win. Is it an easy task? No. Is it absolutely necessary? Yes.”
Democrats may be enjoying political supremacy in the state, but Schepisi argues that that is nothing for the typical New Jerseyan to celebrate. “Because there is single party rule, in Bergen county by way of example, what we are seeing is a loss of transparency, a loss of debate and discourse on really important issues. When you have single party rule for too long, people feel as though they don’t have to explain themselves anymore and their way is the only right way. We’re seeing how detrimental that is to our state.”
With his battles ahead against Governor Murphy, Jack Ciattarelli has a solid ally in Schepisi. When asked if she would support and campaign for him, she responded, “Unequivocally, yes. Ciattarelli is a fantastic candidate, he has my total support and I will do whatever I can to help get him elected.”
She said that as she goes forward, her family is on her side. “My family, my children, and husband are so incredibly supportive. I didn’t do this lightly, I sat down with the whole family and took into consideration and the impact that it would have on them.”
Schepisi may have hoped for a path to the senate where Cardinale did not seek a contest, but it is clear that gaining the senate seat will not be without a vigorous intra-party slugfest, to say nothing of winning the general election afterwards. Indeed, according to the Pascack Press, a number of Republican Bergen County mayors signed a letter, thanking him for his many years of service and leadership, and asking him to throw his support behind Schepisi. This, it seems, will not be. Schepisi is prepared, however. “People close to the senator said that if the senator feels threatened, he will attempt to destroy you in any sort of fashion,” she said. “That’s not my style, that’s not how I operate. I like to run a positive campaign based on the future and what it means, to run on a record of successes and what you’ve done. Not to try to destroy somebody rather than put forth why you’re the better candidate. I’ve seen a lot of crazy stuff in the years I’ve been in office, I’ve had a lot of crazy attacks launched at me, I’ve been called every name under the sun, labeled everything. You reach a point where it almost becomes freeing when you’ve had so much thrown your way, because it allows you to build up that alligator thick skin. You do things for the right reasons rather than because you’re scared. And I’m doing this for the right reasons.”