Seated in the Brightside Tavern for breakfast two weeks after the Board of Education election, four women candidates gathered for a candid talk about their experiences.
Although they all ran on different slates or independently, the four women appeared to have much in common, not just in their philosophies, but also in what they went through during the campaign.
Despite the fact that all four are very intelligent women, none were elected.
Asmaa Abdalla, 23, a Kean University student, ran on the Jersey City United ticket. Natalia Ioffe, 36, a local PTA president and activist, ran as an independent. Gina Verdibello, 40, a parent activist, ran on the Education Matters ticket. And Kimberly Goycochea, 19, a recent graduate of the Jersey City school system, ran on the Fix It Now ticket.
Goycochea said she was not sure what to expect when she decided to run.
“I try to be aware what’s going on in the world,” she said. “But I never thought I would be a person thrown into the political arena. Yet when I started to run, I realized there was a necessity for people like us who had the first hand experience in the schools.”
She was surprised how many of the other candidates were actually involved in the school community, and how much in common the four women had, even though they ran on different tickets.
Verdibello said the best part of running this time was meeting people who believed in her and her mission. Having run four times, both as part of a ticket and as an independent, she said each campaign was different.
“It is a different experience running on a ticket, than as an independent,” she said. “In some ways, I prefer running as an independent.”
She believes that even though she didn’t win, her activism has pushed the board to take action on some issues.
“I know what I’m doing is very important, and continue to do it because my kids are in the district, but I’m also fighting for the other kids as well,” she said
Ioffe said she admires Verdibello’s success and respects the other women who ran. But she was uncomfortable with the jabs some candidates were taking at each other. This led her to expect the whole campaign to be very negative, and was pleasantly surprised when it turned out otherwise:
“We each genuinely brought something, and because there were so many of us, and each of us had a wealth of information and experience, it brought the standard up immediately. Even the questions at the forums were done in a way that was appropriate to our qualifications. It didn’t leave any room for bickering and attacks.”
Abdalla said she didn’t know what to expect.
“I knew it was going to be crazy, just because when you take a first step into anything you don’t know what will come,” she said. “I came to the realization, you have to voice yourself in a professional and respectful manner and get your point across.”
Having gone through the local school system and with brothers still attending Jersey City schools, she knew about things that needed to be changed.
“That was the mindset I had, and I had good intentions all the way,” she said. “I’m going to meet so many people and I’m going to tell them how I feel about certain situations, and they may agree with me or not, but I still have to keep a positive thought and keep going, and keep raising the issues.”
Meeting new people with different cultures and backgrounds, she said, was the one of the pleasant aspects of the campaign.
“Some of them would tell me their issues,” she said. “They raised issues I didn’t know about or I knew about and agreed with.”
All four women, while coming from different backgrounds, had a lot of common ground and had to overcome some of the same issues – including language barriers. All came from families that often did not speak English as their original language
Verdibello, Italian and Peruvian, said she didn’t always have the guidance that her kids have today, which has given her a profound respect for education.
Her father owned a restaurant in Fort Lee
“I had a hard time, because my parents did not originally see education as important, and so I had to learn a lot on my own,” she said. “That’s why I think education is so important,” she said
Goycochea said her mother didn’t realize lack of English speaking at home was a problem for her until she started school.
“I was born here, but I learned Spanish first,” she said.
This gave her insight into the problems many students face, smart kids struggling to overcome language barriers.
But in some cases their ethnic backgrounds helped them relate to the public.
Goycochea said she had an advantage speaking Spanish because this allowed her to talk to many Latinos.
“It made them feel as if I was one of their own,” she said.
Verdibello said she learned from previous campaigns about the need to get out into the community.
“You have meet everybody, because they are the people who you are providing services to. Many of these people are the ones sending their kids to schools.
I made it a point to join as many groups as I could, even people who work at the board,” she said. “I wanted to get their perspective.”
Born in Soviet Ukraine before the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ioffe said she struggled with the language barrier, helped by good teachers and access to the local library.
“Reading and writing were always my strength,” she said, finding that this love of education was a common thread in people she met.
“Everybody wants the best for their own child, green card or no green card, and hopes for everything to be better,” she said.
Abdalla said coming from an Arabic background, she learned to respect other traditions as well as her own, but that some people thought she might be discouraged.
“Being born in Egypt, I never saw an Arab woman doing something as big as running for political office,” she said. “I remember hearing about one woman running in New Jersey. I just put myself out there, and it was iffy at first.”
She ran at a time when there was significant impact from the national campaign, and reports of hate crimes elsewhere.
“I never felt this in Jersey City,” she said. “I think this is because Jersey City is so diverse. You might find one or two people who might say something racist. I never let it put me down, because I’m proud of who I am.”
But she said she wanted to reach others beyond her own community, and made a point of seeking other cultures during the campaign.
“Yes, I’m the first Muslim woman running, and I represent others, but this has nothing to do with religion. I’m proud of being a Muslim, but I represent everyone.”
What does it mean to run for office as a woman?
Ioffe said there was more than a little “machismo” among the men running against each other on some of the slates.
“Sometimes you just have to focus on the issues,” she said.
Ioffe said she disliked being labeled as “a professional mom,” noting that she had qualifications that allowed her to contribute to the community.
Goycochea said she found herself agreeing with a number of issues the other women raised.
“If I agreed on their issue, I would support it,” she said. “I met three great women who are intellectual and knowledgeable about the community But if you don’t realize there is a double standard and running for a political office, realize it now.”
“Our teams were very supportive of us, but not the general public.” – Kimberly Goycochea
“Our teams were very supportive of us, but not the general public,” Goycochea said.
Verdibello said men were often taken more seriously. Abdalla said some people did not take her seriously both because she was a woman and because he was young.
“A teacher was telling people not to vote for me, saying I’m 23, and asked what I knew about running a school board,” she said. “I’m not running the school board. I’m running to become one member. People should be happy Jersey City public schools brought up someone like me, someone did something right.”
But she also said some people were willing to vote for her for the wrong reasons.
“‘You’re so pretty, you have nice eyes,’” they’d say and I say, ‘Thank you, but these are my issues. Please vote for me because you agree with my issues, and if you don’t agree with me, don’t vote for me,’” she said. “They didn’t hear anything about me they’d just say, “You’re beautiful, I’m going to vote for you.’ Don’t vote for me because I’m pretty. This is a shell and you’re looking past that. You need to look at what’s in my brain. Pretty doesn’t always do it. Sometimes you can be pretty, and stupid. I don’t like to be looked at as a piece of meat.”
Goycochea also saw age as a factor, since three of the candidates in this election were recent graduates. She said some people tried to disengage them.
“We all wanted to help the kids, and had a clear consensus wanting to use our collective experience to help them,” she said. “Some people said our intentions were too honorable or noble. We were not playing the woman card, we were concerned citizens. We’ve seen the problems and we want to help. I don’t mind if someone said they wouldn’t vote for me because they didn’t like my issues. I would try to change their mind. But I didn’t like someone saying they won’t vote for me because I’m too young.”
Verdibello said after dinner one night her ten-year-old daughter came up to her and said she wanted to run for Board of Education when she was older.
“I told her, don’t run for Board of Education, run for senator,” she said, although admitted she was proud of her daughter.
She said that her defeats in each election have been a lesson for her children as well.
“My kids see me fail and get back on it. That’s the person I am, I’m a fighter and I never stop,” Verdibello said.
But she admitted that politics for women in Hudson County is tough.
“When we run, we do not get looked at in the best light,” she said. “We get criticized more than men. When you run, you are out there for everyone to see. If you take a drink, people criticize you even though men do it.”
She said she doesn’t always feel people respect her sometimes, especially by men.
“They look at you more like ‘You’re very pretty, I’ll vote for you.’” She said, “That’s a big insult, I think I have something to offer, and I’m very qualified, experience, you don’t want to hear that, you’re just looking at the dress I’m wearing and that I’m very pretty.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.