April 21, 2024
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Assemblywoman Lisa Swain’s Path to Politics

Blame it on the library.

Assemblywoman Lisa Swain (D) of District 38 has had quite an interesting path on her way to the New Jersey Legislature. But one thing’s for sure; it was never part of her original plan.

She always loved the library, but she absolutely fell in love with the Maurice Pine Free Public Library in Fair Lawn when she was introduced to the children’s programming there, where she often brought kids for story time, crafts projects and all kinds of wonderful reading programs.

Little did she know back then how that would play a role in paving her way to a career in politics and a seat in the New Jersey General Assembly, where she has been a member since 2018.

Born and raised in New York, Swain earned her undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Rochester and a master’s degree in sports and fitness management from NYU. She had stints at Dun & Bradstreet and worked as a career counselor at a consulting firm that specialized in outplacement.

While working as a volunteer for Save the Children, she came up with a fundraising project that involved a 24-hour relay race that took place all across the country. (She even booked Shea Stadium.) Her idea proved so successful that they offered her a job.

But in all that time, politics had yet to come into play.

When motherhood came along Swain ”switched things up again” this time focusing on being a full-time mom. Once her kids started school she became an active member of the PTA, taught swimming at the Ridgewood Y and even coached triathletes.

It should come as no surprise that she held a number of leadership roles on the PTA and both her talent, proficiency and enthusiasm did not go unnoticed. Asked to serve on the Board of Trustees of the Maurice Pine Free Library, she did so for six years, holding posts as treasurer and then president for three consecutive terms.

“It was an interesting time on the library board and it was a transitional time because digital media was coming into place and we had to start adapting, making changes,” she said. “I love the library and I was thinking progressively about different programs we could offer people.”

And then it happened.

The mayor of Fair Lawn at the time, Steve Weinstein, approached Swain and asked if she would consider running for council.

Up to that point, she said, she had never thought about entering government and politics. “It was not part of the plan, but I’ve always been open to a challenge,” she admitted. So she said yes, ran for election and won. That was 15 years ago.

In 2011 and 2018 she served as mayor of the Borough of Fair Lawn and in 2018 she headed to the Assembly.

These days Swain is chair of the Appropriations Committee, vice-chair of State and Local Government and a member of both the Women and Children Committee and the Joint Budget Oversight Committee and has sponsored or co-sponsored dozens of bills aimed at improving the lives of her constituents.

“One of the roles I have taken on naturally is to try to encourage other women to run,” she explained with a note of passion in her voice. Unfortunately,
because politics have become so divisive she doesn’t always get the enthusiastic responses she would want to see.

Swain believes there are several reasons why so many women tend to shy away from a career in politics, and relaunching themselves in general.

“Many women don’t realize how impactful they could be … they are very serious about what they do and they don’t want to just launch into something unless they are prepared,” she explained. However, she was quick to add that no one has experience before they go into serving in government and that “lack of experience” should not be a deterrent.

“Women are natural born leaders … managing a household with kids, multiple schedules and jobs … they are already developing leadership skills.” Unfortunately, many women don’t always see it that way and often incorrectly assume they need high-level professional experience and advanced degrees.

For those women thinking about pursuing a degree are feeling discouraged for any number of reasons, including their age, Swain urges them to just go for it. “It’s never too late to pursue your dream,” she said. “It’s certainly never too late to pursue public service because I think when you’re older you are wiser; that knowledge you have is a real benefit to serving since you have already learned negotiating skills in life.”

Whether it’s about finding a job after a career break or running for office, Swain’s advice is to build your network.

“That is something that hasn’t changed … it’s still important today to have a network of people you can call on, whether you are job searching and want to let your network know if they hear of an opening or if you want to get into public service.” That network is there to act as a support system.

“Women have networks and may not realize it, or may not even realize even how big their network really is. That’s something I learned when I first started running for office.” When Swain first began to think about her network, she started to list all the different parts and roles in her life, from her kids’ schools to her friends, her synagogue and her memberships in organizations including Hadassah and the NCJW. Even her jogging friends were part of that built-in network. “I just started looking at all the groups that I belong to and realized I do have a network. We all do; we just have to mobilize it.”

She also advises to get involved in one’s individual town or city and to check out the local political clubs there. Getting involved in local clubs is an excellent way for someone to gain insight and knowledge about the first level of elected office, which is county committee. Those involved with the county committee are responsible for being in touch with the people in their district and making sure they vote, come out to meetings, and gather information about who is on the ballot and the questions that will appear on it.

“This election is especially important as far as women’s rights are concerned,” she noted, and for those whose interest has been piqued, Swain recommends getting involved on a volunteer level, especially because there are so many organizations looking for more help. “There is so much going on now. There are different groups of women who have started up initiatives—some focusing on rallies, some on postcard writing … It’s all about getting people elected and volunteering is a great way to start to learn about the political process.

“A lot of what public service is about is serving constituents and problem-solving; many women have already developed those kinds of skills so maybe making a change won’t be as hard as one might think.”

To learn more about Swain visit https://www.njleg.state.nj.us/legislative-roster/413/assemblywoman-swain

By Ronit Mershon

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