Elected officials share FDU roots, encourage civic engagement
Above, former New Jersey Governor and current state stenator, Richard Codey, BA’81, speaking at FDU's Florham Campus in the fall of 2011. Codey is one of many FDU alumni who have gone on to serve in politics. (Photo by Dan Landau)
By Dan Landau
Among Fairleigh Dickinson University’s many distinguished alumni are a number of legislative leaders currently serving in elected office. Educated in various disciplines, each has contributed significantly to the betterment of their communities. In addition to their alma mater, they also share a common belief about the importance of civic engagement.
Think locally and act politically, they counsel the next generation of leaders. “Everyone’s voice counts and it is individuals that make a difference in our country,” says New Jersey Assemblywoman and Deputy Speaker Shavonda Sumter (D-35), MBA’01.
“Government plays a role in everyone’s daily lives,” continues Sumter. “It affects everything from going to school, to the places you can shop, to the transit opportunities you have. If you’re not civically involved, then someone will make these decisions for you.”
|Above, Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, MBA'01 with FDU President Sheldon Drucker during a visit to the Florham Campus in March 2012. (Photo by Dan Landau)|
New Jersey Assemblywoman and Deputy Conference Leader Mary Pat Angelini (R-11), MPA’93, echoed Sumter’s sentiments. “If I choose not to participate,” she says, “then I am giving that decision-making role up to the next guy or gal — who may not feel the same way I do.”
The path to the ballot
The desire to have a voice in the civic process and a chance to influence local issues drove many of FDU’s elected alumni to first enter politics.
“I entered politics as a young mom, right after I moved to Teaneck. I was pushing a stroller down Cedar Lane on a hot summer day and there were no trees to stand under and cool off. I went to a town council meeting to ask, ‘How come our main street doesn’t have any growing trees?’” recounts New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37) in an interview.
Above, State Senator Loretta Weinberg speaking in the Rothman Center on the Metropolitan Campus in the summer of 2012 as a candidate for lieutenant governor during Jon Corzine's failed gubernatorial reelection campaign. President Barack Obama also spoke at the event. (Photo by Dan Landau)
For Massachusetts State Senator, Gale Candaras (D-1st Hampden and Hampshire), BS’77, getting involved in local politics was a way to not only have a voice in the process, but also to challenge traditional gender roles. She started out volunteering on the planning board in her small Massachusetts town of Wilbraham in the late 1980’s.
“Back then, the planning board was all men. Some of them took a dim view of a woman with a young family serving on anything and some of them made remarks to me that they have to eat on a regular basis,” she says. “When I later served on Wilbraham’s board of selectmen, I was only the second woman to serve in the entire 250-year history of the town” [town councils in Massachusetts — ed.].
As a lawyer with a young family, Senator Candaras was not initially interested in a political career, but a friend encouraged her participation. “I didn’t have any aspirations for higher office. I just wanted to make my community a better place.” After volunteering in her community for 10 years, she made the jump to the Statehouse and has served for the past eighteen years as a member of both chambers of the Massachusetts Legislature.
Besides working with local communities, getting involved in politics is also a way to advocate for the advancement of larger-
scale initiatives. Prior to entering the Legislature, Angelini had no plans to enter politics. At the time, she was (and remains) the leader of Prevention First, a nonprofit that works to keep children healthy, safe and drug-free. When the senator and an assemblyman for her district announced they would not seek reelection in 2008, a friend of Angelini’s persuaded her to run for the General Assembly seat.
Other FDU alumni serving in New Jersey
“This was an opportunity to have my worlds collide for good,” says reflects the assemblywoman. “I never saw myself running for office and had never served on a school board or town council. I ran for the General Assembly seat because I saw the job as an extension of my work at Prevention First.”
On the other side of the aisle and the country, Colorado State Senator John Michael Kefalas (D-14), MAT’82, took a similar path into politics, getting involved later in life after a career of nonprofit service. Previously, Kefalas served in the Peace Corps, and taught high school in Elizabeth, N.J.
Kefalas describes his time spent serving with the Peace Corps in Central America as a “transformative experience,” and credits it
with the course his career has taken. “It got me started in my direction of fairness and justice and addressing poverty,” he says.
|Massachusetts State Senator Gale Candaras, BS'77 (left) and Mary Pat Angelini, MPA'93 (right). While studying business at FDU, Candaras was mentored by Harold Feldman, FDU's first dean of business. Angelini took advantage of FDU's presence in Central New Jersey by taking classes at the Monmouth County Graduate Center in Eatontown, N.J. (Photos courtesy of Candaras and Angelini).|
FDU’s elected alumni took different paths to their careers in public service, but are united in their advice for the University’s next generation of leaders: volunteer! “You don’t have to run for office to be engaged in public service,” remarks former New Jersey Governor and current state senator Richard Codey, (D-27) BA’81. “Find a candidate or issue you like and support them or the issue.”
Angelini elaborates, saying, “There are so many levels of government — there is always some level that a young person could get involved in. Whether it is the school board, municipal elections, or a candidate of the county party offices, volunteers are always needed.”
Volunteering actually launched Candaras’ political career. “I didn’t mount an official campaign and I wasn’t even on the
ballot. My volunteer efforts on behalf of the town for the previous ten years propelled me into the statehouse,” for her first time in the Massachusetts House of Representative she says.
Alumni remember FDU
Richard Codey attended FDU in the late 1960s, leaving with nine credits outstanding. Years later, a mentor of Codey’s at FDU, Associate Professor of Education, Andre Meade, reached out to Codey and helped him complete his remaining credits in 1981. “I didn’t feel full before I got my degree,” says Codey. “I am eternally grateful to the man. If it wasn’t for him, I may not have ever finished my degree.”
FDU helped John Michael Kefalas complete his degree by giving him academic credits for his Peace Corps experience. “I really liked how they incentivized the Peace Corps folks and acknowledged it as a relevant experience,” he says.
Shavonda Sumter completed a summer program at Wroxton College, where she studied the British national healthcare system as part of her MBA from FDU, where she concentrated in health systems.
If you don’t have the time to volunteer, that’s OK say FDU’s elected alumni. There are other ways to be involved, like voting and staying informed on the issues. “I don’t care who you vote for, but don’t argue with me on policy if you’re not even registered to vote,” says Angelini.
Codey, who received an honorary doctorate from FDU in 2005, echoed Angelini’s comments, saying, “We all feel strongly about something and if you’re not registered to vote and don’t participate in the legislative process, then you’re missing out. Being in politics helps you to learn to respect other people’s opinions and understand their side of the issues. You don’t have to agree with everyone, but if you can at least hear them, you’ll be better off with your relationships with your friends and family.”
Being informed is the foundation of all other political engagement, as any sort of involvement in the process is predicated on being informed.
“Young people today play a critical role in politics, keeping us on track,” says Kefalas. “They need to participate and engage with elected folks and hold us accountable. My generation’s job is to make sure we keep things in place and then pass on the baton to them and they have to be willing to accept that baton. They can'thold us accountable or accept the baton if they are not informed about the issues.”
Peter Woolley, the senior vice provost for government and community affairs at FDU, recognizes the wide range of opportunities to participate.
“There’s no single course of preparation for public service because public service touches on every discipline and encompasses all of society,” he says. “FDU has always encouraged its graduates to give back to society in any way they can. Just as many of our students receive scholarships and strong support from their own families; we always ask that they pay it forward. These members of the FDU Alumni Caucus are very obviously paying it forward through their public service.”
No matter what we do, it is our civic responsibility to be informed about the issues and engage with members of the government, even if it is just by voting. As the self-described “feisty Jewish grandmother,” Weinberg said in her interview, “anyone who doesn’t take the time to be informed about the issues is shirking their responsibility, the responsibility that comes from living in a free democracy.”
Whatever you do, do something! Doing nothing is not an option. “If you choose not to participate, you don’t influence the outcome,” says Weinberg.
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