Described as a young, charismatic man and a robust community volunteer, Marc Zharnest is committed to Fair Lawn. He’s lived in the town his whole life, volunteered for the emergency services, worked on committees, founded his own softball team and held leadership positions within his synagogue. Now, for the first time he’s running for public office, tossing his hat into the ring for the Fair Lawn Council.
“I believe in this town,” he said in a phone interview, a couple weeks after declaring his candidacy.
While the quote may sound cliché, Zharnest really means what he says. He and his wife, Orit, an occupational therapist, decided to start their lives together in Fair Lawn after marrying in 2010. By then, he had already been volunteering for years with the Fire Department and Ambulance Corps, and he has continued his involvement, even serving as the president of Corps for two years. He was the Men’s Club president of his synagogue, Shomrei Torah, from 2011 to 2012, working to help recruit young families like his own to the community. This past fall he was appointed to the town zoning board, one of the most powerful committees, where he was introduced to some of the basics of government.
“I grew up here my whole life,” he said. “I thought volunteering with the emergency services would be a good way to give back.” Pursuing elected office is another way he believes he can help the town.
Zharnest will be running on the Republican ticket along with popular mayor John Cosgrove and first time candidate John Gil. While the Republicans swept both open council seats two years ago, although each by only a couple hundred votes, there is no guarantee they will emerge victorious again this election cycle. Governor Chris Christie’s reelection campaign likely increased Republican turnout and support in 2013, and the Democrats have nominated another strong slate of candidates; former mayor Lisa Swain and current councilman Kurt Peluso, each seeking reelection, are joined by long-time Fair Lawn resident Ellen Tanner.
Despite Zharnest’s robust volunteer experience, this is his first time campaigning for public office. But, his youth, charisma and general likeability are all qualities that are important in local politics where Zharnest will likely meet a few thousand people over the course of the campaign. “I tell it like it is,” he said of how he plans to communicate and connect with voters.
If he wins, he knows he’ll “have to learn the ropes first,” but is confident he’ll be able to pick up governing skills quickly. He earned an M.A. in healthcare administration at Seton Hall, and his work at Centers Health Care has taught him to be a “jack-of-all trades.” He’s a natural born leader as well: Besides captaining his softball team, he was also elected president of the Yeshiva University Student Council while an undergraduate.
As for his plans if elected, Zharnest wants to “wrap his hands around the budget” to make sure that taxes, which have remained flat in in recent years, continue to stay affordable for the young families, like his own, that will keep Fair Lawn growing. “We’re middle class,” he added, “I have student loans” to pay back, pointing out that he can provide a personal understanding to the financial realities for many young families. He and Orit are also raising two young children: Shimon, age three, and Yaakov, age one. They recently completed the purchase of their first house as well, after years of living in the Fair Lawn Commons. In addition to the budget, he also plans to continue funding for “our great amenities,” rebuild the aging infrastructure of the town and provide further support for the emergency services.
Zharnest also brings a unique perspective to the Fair Lawn council. Unlike Teaneck and Bergenfield, which have both had Orthodox Jews serve on their councils and even occupy the mayor’s seat, Zharnest is the first from Fair Lawn in recent memory to pursue elected office. “It’s important that the community sees the Orthodox are involved,” he said, and that they are committed to the town.
As for his political future, he remains humble, saying “I’ll take it one step at a time.”
Fair Lawn was rated NJ.com’s top town in New Jersey in 2013, and Zharnest identifies one particular reason for that: “Fair Lawn is great because of the volunteer services,” he said. If anyone should recognize that, it’s him. He’s dedicated the first thirty years of his life to Fair Lawn and he shows no signs of slowing down. “There’s a warmth here,” he said, “and I hope to continue that.”
Zachary Schrieber is a freelance writer. He can be reached by email at [email protected]
By Zachary Schrieber