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Insider NJ spoke with LD39 Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, Assistant Assembly Republican Leader, an attorney educated at Catholic University of American and Fordham University School of Law, who has been in the Assembly since 2012. She is running with Assemblyman Bob Auth against Westwood Mayor John Birkner and Gerald Falotico to retain her seat. Some of her resume includes service in Westwood and Old Tappan as an Alternate Prosecutor, then as the Attorney for River Vale, and Public Defender in the Borough of Oakland.
Regarding the state of the Republican Party across New Jersey, Schepisi felt that there was reason for Republicans to hope and that much of that hope had stemmed from the Democrats running too far to the left, alienating more moderate and conservative voters. Certainly this is not idle or hopeful speculation, with one example being Old Bridge Councilman Mark Razzoli who switched affiliation, claiming “the party left me.”
“I’m cautiously optimistic. The pendulum has a tendency to swing at times,” Schepisi told InsiderNJ, “and as there has been a further push to the left, we’re starting to gain back some voters who are more independent thinking, unaffiliated, ‘soft’ Republicans are starting vocalize concerns about what they perceive as a push too far left that they aren’t comfortable with.”
While the subject of President Donald J. Trump remains frequently controversial, and, indeed, Trump’s negative image in the state of New Jersey may certainly have been the trigger for the mid-term ‘Blue Wave’ that decimated the GOP more so than any particular demonstrations of Democratic competence and achievement, Schepisi felt that some of the edge has been blunted by Trenton’s turn left under Governor Phil Murphy. “I think that offsets some of the anger and backlash we’ve seen over the years because of the Trump factor. I think people are trying to find candidates and voices that they believe will afford them the opportunity to express an opinion.”
In what would come as a surprise to no one, left or right, red or blue, the veteran Assemblywoman identified cost as a major factor in voter dissatisfaction and asserted that Republicans would do well to focus on those issues. “The over-development issue is a huge one in the state right now, one that crosses party lines in a lot of communities,” she said. “We’ve seen so many towns and people energized who were not necessarily involved.” She identified the state pension liabilities as a serious issue and said there had to be “something there for people who have been part of the system for twenty-plus years, and doing something fiscally responsible to reform the system moving forward.”
Young people find it difficult to live in New Jersey and the elderly find it hard to retire. Taxes and New Jersey are almost tragicomically entwined, but Schepisi wanted to bring attention to one particular cause, on the more local level, which the typical resident may not be conscious of: what she described as “the unfair school funding formula”. That challenge, while certainly not an easy one to meet, could potentially strike gold for aspiring Republicans. “Property taxes are what’s driving so many of our residents involuntarily out of state, people don’t understand that at least in a lot of the suburban communities a majority of that burden is inequitable school funding. I think that if we can work to come up with better means of funding our schools that isn’t reliant on individual property taxes, then we end up winning back the state.”
For the majority of New Jerseyans, the cost of living is one of the greatest liabilities of residency in the Garden State. It might seem academic to political scientists who can get lost in the weeds of the swampy morass of state governance, but it is a crucial consideration that weighs on the minds of everyone who thinks going to the polls will bring about results. “It’s a constant theme among those I speak to. The middle class is being crushed, people who are making salaries in other states that would put them in a wealthy category are barely making ends meet because the overall cost burden is so incredibly high,” Schepisi lamented. “People are embarrassed to admit they are making $150k a year, with three kids and taxes, they’re barely getting by. It’s a conversation that people don’t admit to until you talk to them behind the scenes and you hear the stories that no matter how much people are making, no matter what they’re doing, they still don’t feel as if they are getting ahead.”
When asked if the duel between Governor Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) presented any favorable opportunities for the Republican Party, she readily agreed that it did. “Even amongst unaffiliateds or Blue Dog Democrats, there’s a concern that some of the policies being promulgated are so far to the left. Some of my colleagues have expressed that we don’t have any desire to become California. That’s not who we are, that’s not what we want. They believe that some of the initiatives being pushed are too extreme.” As for Sweeney, she offered praise for slowing down some aspects of the governor’s agenda. “I think Senate President Sweeney has done an excellent job of doing what some of the Republicans should be doing in New Jersey and has managed to steal some of our own arguments and be one of the louder voices on them. It’s something that speaks to the schisms in the Democratic Party that we as Republicans faced about ten years ago with the up-swell of the Tea Party and some of the more conservative factions of the party and, like we had to, they’re going to have to figure out how to navigate through that.”
Since the Steve Lonegan/Chris Christie ideological tug of war was handily decided, and following the collapse of the Republican Party during Governor Murphy’s reign, Schepisi offered her thoughts on realism versus ideological sanctity. “I believe as with all political parties that sometimes there is an ideological purity test that nobody can necessarily pass because nobody should agree 100% on all issues. As humans we are built to have different opinions and, unlike the Democrats, the Democrats could vehemently disagree with one of their own on an issue or a multitude but would still vote for the Democrat because it’s better than a Republican. Republicans were on the opposite end of the spectrum, and it was ‘God forbid a fellow Republican doesn’t agree with me on one issue, then I’m not going to vote for them’. That sort of mentality hurt our party and helped us lose elections over the past several years. I think there’s been a centering where we may not agree with you on everything, but you are still better than the other option, so we are going to support you. The important thing is that we’re playing catch-up in our party doing the top-to-bottom support as a cohesive collective unit, even if someone doesn’t necessarily fall into what we want on the ideological purity test.”
As far as the next gubernatorial election is concerned, Schepisi said “it’s going to be an interesting time.” In political time, the 2021 election is an eternity and anything can happen between now and the next election for the state’s top spot. “I have a couple people I believe would make excellent governors and right now I’m just getting through my own election. I imagine that there will be an attempt at a primary and, if that doesn’t work, can there be some sort of alliance between moderate Democrats in supporting a moderate Republican?” Only time will tell.
When InsiderNJ spoke with Essex County Democratic Chairman Leroy Jones, he was confident that Governor Murphy would do all in his power to help elect and support Democrats, even though so many have been disinclined to further his agenda, passively at best, or blocking it at worst. Could reaching across the aisle be a viable solution for Murphy’s legislative woes? Schepisi was not optimistic that Murphy would find much support among Republicans in building a bridge over troubled Democratic waters. “I’ll never say something is too late but I think from a tactical perspective it is probably outreach that should’ve taken place far earlier than now. It’s tough to establish those relationships a few years in when there hasn’t been an attempt prior.”
As for Schepisi’s future political ambitions, she remains focused on the more immediate concerns of her re-election and work in the General Assembly. “I’m looking at the next two years as doing whatever it takes, ripping off whatever band-aids we have to to try to bring fiscal soundness to the state. I think we’re going to have to cross party lines on both sides to get that done and some very difficult decisions are going to have to take place. I’m committed to doing them.” Would she consider a run for governor down the road? “As to the future I’ve learned never to say ‘never’,” she said. She added that her 90 year-old Democrat mother-in-law in New York has made her promise to run for president one day so she can support her. While she seems adamantly disinclined to shoot for the nation’s highest office, she said of the future that “nothing is impossible.”