The Power of Women in Politics Part 1: Leading Women in Our Community with Mayor Janice Kovach

Q: First off, how has your job changed over the recent weeks with the outbreak of COVID-19? What has been the worry that keeps you up at night related to this pandemic?

A: The last two weeks have been an almost hourly response to the changing environment.

Keeping residents informed as well as our small business community while at the same time trying to conduct business as usual.  As the state slowly works to shut down operations not just at the state level but businesses at the local level for the health and safety of our community.  We are trying to balance the uncertainty of what we are dealing with while offering a glimmer of hope that this will pass and we will come out stronger.

The worry is what everyone worries about - how will this affect my family and when I say family I mean my entire community, not just if they get sick but what happens to those who may lose their job or to the small business owner who lives and dies by margins who can’t reopen their business.

Q: What was your first job in politics? How did it help prepare you for your role as mayor?

A: My first job was working on a State Senator’s campaign

I had the opportunity to co-manage the campaign.  It was one of the best experiences but it also made me realize that campaign management was not sustainable for me as a career - the hours and lack of job guaranty were the reasons I volunteer but did not make it my career choice.

Politics is interesting - it changes with the wind.  

Working on the campaign gave me insight into the policymakers and how they operate.  It showed me the good and the bad of politics - the bad was bad and not something I could stomach but the good - definitely the highlights of the job.  Seeing the positive impact on a person or a community,

Q: Tell me one piece of advice you were told that has stayed with you to this day?

A: Never give up or let someone tell you that you can’t.  

That advice came from my 8th-grade history teacher. Something true and something false about women in politics?

True - we have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good
False - we don’t support other women

Q: Why is it important to see women in elected office?

A: Women bring a different perspective to the table.

There is more of a willingness to collaborate and compromise.  I always use the example of when the federal government shut down the first time.  While many of the legislators were on the cable news circuity pontificating a group of bi-partisan women sat down to negotiate and it was the work they did that created the framework to re-open the government.  And unfortunately, they didn’t get the credit they deserved - I believe only the late Senator John McCain and Senator Mark Udall ever gave them credit.

From a statistics perspective we make up more than 51% of the population and make up less than 25% of congress, look at the individual state, NJ has 565 municipalities and less than 80 are represented by women.  

Unfortunately, we need to keep pushing for our seat at the table because if we are not at the table we are on the menu.

Q: What made you decide to become a Mayor? How did you get into the field, and why do you stay?

A: Politics has always intrigued me - and it's interesting watching the intersection of politics and policy.

After college I worked in the financial services industry - when I had my children and was staying home I used that as an opportunity to get involved locally. And it was in 2003 that I ran for office the first time. I got the bug! It also gave me the opportunity to see a direct impact on the residents of my community. I’ve run for Assembly and Congress and both times with the intention of having a greater impact on the communities as a whole. In 2006, I went to work for the Governor running the NJ Division on Women, in 2010 after an administration change I was looking for another way to have a positive impact and running for Mayor was the next step.

I had been training women to run for office and take their seat at the table for 10 years - I needed to step up and set an example for all of the young girls I told to run for office.

I continue doing this because it is my passion, some people focus on school boards or community organizing but for me its politics and policy. I can drive change that needs to happen with my voice as mayor. I can be a voice for the voiceless, and as long as this work benefits at least one person the time and aggravation are all worth it.

Q: What has helped you get to where you are? and what advice would you have for other women who want to set off in a similar direction?

A: Passion and tenacity are probably the two driving factors.

A passion to make a difference and the tenacity to continue working at it in the face of opposition. The best advice I can give is to keep at it, I think Hillary said it best in her concession speech in 2008 when she was not the Democratic nominee “There are no acceptable limits. There are no acceptable prejudices. Always aim high, work hard and care deeply for what you believe in. And when you stumble keep the faith, and when you are knocked down, get right back up. And never listen to anyone who says you can’t or shouldn’t go on."

Q: How did you balance being a mother and professional? What have you sacrificed (both personally and professionally) at each stage of your career?

A: First I think balance is a myth - in order to give something your all something else suffers.

For me it was prioritizing work and family, meaning if I had major projects at work my husband and I shifted home responsibilities if we both had something our extended family jumped in to help. With two parents working or a single-parent household, there is a new normal and the best thing you can do is set expectations with your career and your family. Don’t take on a project if you are stretched too thin or take the project on with a partner or two if possible. For me, it is always thinking outside the box rather than relying on the way things have always been done. Create a “new way”! I’m lucky at this point my youngest child is 17, a junior in high school, my middle son is 18 getting ready to graduate high school and my daughter is married living in Colorado, so their need for my attention is not what it was when they were toddlers - however, I still set expectations with them so that they get time from me when they need it.

Q: From paid care to cabinet quotas, from satellites to the sport, how can we finally get closer to achieving gender parity at work?

A: We first have to stop assuming current gender roles.

We allow society to continue to define rather than pushing back. We do it subconsciously - not even realizing it.

Each of us has a responsibility to challenge the norm and redefine the paradigm, we are starting to see small shifts but for every two steps forward there is one back.

Quotas continue the disparity to some extent and sometimes provides an opportunity for an individual less qualified. I hope that within my lifetime we see the dial shift but it will take all of us working together to make that happen.

Q: Covid-19 is officially a pandemic. Can we change its course? What are you doing in your town to prevent widespread death?

A: This is an unprecedented time in our history - there are no rules or processes on how to handle what we are experiencing.

Right now we take each day as it comes - making sure we do everything in our power to protect our residents as well as our small business owners. We are asking people to take giant leaps of faith in us that we can navigate this unknown. I have an amazing network of mayors and elected officials I can tap into for resources to ask what they are doing.

It's unfortunate that politics at times has come into play but I hope that we can move past political biases and focus on healing our communities.

I use social media throughout the day to share information with residents, I’m on the phone or texting with anyone who needs to ask a question or raise a concern. Our state government does daily briefings and our state legislature is quickly moving legislation meant to help the residents of NJ from the schools, to small business and healthcare.

Moderator: Alyssa Paolicelli, Reporter at NY1

Panelists: Janice Kovach, Mayor of Clinton, Honorary Guest Panelist

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