I want to be completely honest with my readers. I believe in being completely transparent. As you can see this post is “Sponsored”. I was hired by Rebecca Symes’ team to help her with some marketing and content creation. When I agreed to help them, I said “I cannot officially endorse you” – reason being I didn’t know enough about Rebecca or the other candidates to make that decision. Although, I definitely thought that supporting a female candidate was important.
Rebecca came to our office a few times, and I got to know her on a personal level. After speaking with her about local issues, I realized that if I were to ever run for local government, my platform would be exactly like hers.
Helping other communities in Jersey City, bridging gaps, more affordable housing, helping small businesses thrive, supporting local arts and culture, better transparency and policies in place for people to voice themselves etc…
Rebecca won me over. She is extremely passionate and dedicated to serving the Jersey City community, she was literally raised to be a public servant, as her whole family was. I am convinced that her work and volunteer experience make her the most qualified candidate.
What’s your name?
I’m Rebecca Symes.
What do you do?
I’m a lawyer by trade, and I got my start in affordable housing fighting for tenants. I did that for five years. After that, I worked for US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who took over as the junior senator of New York when Senator Clinton became Secretary of State to President Obama. That job was predominantly partnering with regular people, but also municipalities, businesses, and non-profits all across New York State trying to make the federal government work better for real people. When I worked for Senator Gillibrand, I was also on the ground during the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy in some of the most devastated areas. It was pretty unbelievable to see people who lost everything, touring the damage areas with them, and understanding the role government can play when people are facing those dire circumstances. It’s really what I want to do – help people who are in dire circumstances and don’t have anyone else advocating for them. I did that for two years, and then I got a job in the private sector, where I was general counsel for a company that invested in residential real estate, and I joined them when they were in their startup phase. We were a lean, small company and I was the first lawyer on staff, so I was able to build their legal department and also work on other pet projects like their corporate philanthropy program and their youth internship program. It was a great job that allowed me to pay off my student loan debt, because I had debt from both college and law school to pay off, and also to gain an understanding of how the private sector works. Then, in June, when I found out Candice Osbourne, our current city councilperson, is not running I quit my job to focus my full attention on running for City Council.
What made you make the move?
I fell in love with Jersey City the first time I came here. When I got my job in the private sector, my office was in Jersey City. I was coming here every day, and that was over four years ago. I got to go on these property tours in Downtown JC, the Heights, Greenville, and West Side. I instantly got the sense that Jersey City has a really unique and vibrant feel to it that I thought was missing from other places I had lived. It was sort of like, “I’m going to live here someday.” It took me a couple of years to get here, but now I’m here to stay.
You moved here, but why go into politics?
To be honest, I feel like I don’t have a choice. I feel strongly about the role government can play in shaping what happens in communities. Jersey City is unique in the sense that it’s very diverse, there’s a really vibrant downtown in terms of the different types of commercial we have, there’s people who’ve been here a really long time, there’s new people. That special factor that makes Jersey City such a great place to live is really important to hold onto, otherwise we might lose it. This is a moment where that can happen. When I used to work in affordable housing in New York City, in many ways what we were doing was fighting forces that push people out and I think, in Jersey City, we want to make sure we have elected officials who know that’s a possibility and are working toward keeping what makes Downtown so special. I have a professional background but also personal commitment to trying to make the world a better place, and doing it on a local level for me is much more interesting than doing it on a statewide or federal level because you can actually get some pretty big things done.
I heard you talking about the way you were raised. Do you want to talk a little bit more about that?
My family has always been focused on how we contribute outside the four walls of our home. My stepfather was a public servant, he was the Director of Planning and Development in my hometown of Plymouth, Massachusetts. He would be out of the house a lot on weeknight evenings, going to zoning board or planning board meetings, and the dedication he had to really making an impact in his community rubbed off on me. He was a really patient and kind person, especially when people were worried about a new development or they were concerned about parking or the way traffic patterns worked. Every city has a lot of the same issues, and the patience and generosity he showed people really made an impact on me.
My mom was this amazing woman, and she was very sick off and on since I was a toddler. She had several recurrences of breast cancer throughout her life and then she died in 2009. She really made serving other people the theme of her life. I had two adopted siblings, my mom always worked in the public sector, she never really worked in the private sector, she ran a program for young single moms, and she wouldn’t take no for an answer. One of the young women she was working with had gone to a car dealership, bought a car that she couldn’t really afford, and the terms of the loan agreement were not really fair. My mom marched to the car dealership and basically told the car dealership, “I don’t care if there’s a signed contract, she can’t afford this, this is where she’s at. You’re going to do the right thing.” and basically forced this guy to let her out of her contract, which he really didn’t have to do, just by my mom’s sheer force of will and spirit he did it. That sort of refusal to stay in your lane or refusal to take no for an answer definitely rubbed off on me.
She was in public office, she was a city councilwoman in my hometown, she was on the school board. Even early in her political life, and she was committed to the idea that good schools are the great equalizer and education is a really important tool to impact generational poverty. My mom grew up in a really poor area of west Texas, and I still have relatives there who live on public assistance and struggle. My mom got out and she realized it wasn’t just because of who she was, but because she also had a couple of lucky breaks and her parents cared a lot about education, although my mom didn’t go to college until I was in Junior High. She got married when she was 18 and put aside her dreams of schooling until later in life. My whole life, my mom told me to go to college and she was really proud when I graduated law school. It was a big moment for her. Having a mom like that, who was always fighting for her family and also other people’s families, left a big impact.
So that’s why you’re running for council.
It is! It’s the legacy, and I think that’s the point. I know a lot of parents say they want to do better for their kids than their parents did for them. I think that’s certainly what my mom wanted, but also, she wanted for me to take on the mantle of living a life focused on helping people and that it’s helping people that matters the most in life.
So, there’s this big thing in Jersey City, I’m sure you know, with gentrification and people feel like it’s turning into another Hoboken. There are all these new buildings popping up, no opportunity to buy homes, it’s all condos, it’s rentals. It’s getting a little bit out of hand. How do you feel about that and what do you think you’ll be able to do for people who feel that way?
I think this is one of the most pressing issues facing people who live Downtown. People of all income levels are worried about being pushed out. I have a really good friend, her and her husband bought here 20 years ago, they are retired, they live on a fixed income, and they are really worried about what the future holds for them. Their property tax is likely to go up after the city-wide property revaluation. I was the President of a neighborhood association, the Harsimus Cove Association, and one of the things I did right away when I took over was start reaching out to government agencies both state and local to figure out what resources are currently available to serve as a stop gap measure for our neighbors worried about the reval. The Senior Freeze is a program that the state administers, which helps senior citizens or people with disabilities who own their homes freeze their taxes in the face of an increase if they’re eligible. I brought representative from New Jersey Division of Taxation down here to talk about it. We had a meeting and over 40 seniors came to hear directly from the government agency, and that’s the first part – recognizing what resources are out there and making sure everyone who’s eligible is taking advantage of them. It’s an information piece.
In terms of the future, if elected, I feel strongly that communities should have a real say when big decisions are being made about their neighborhoods.
One of the things that I’d like to do is create legal framework that obligates people who are looking to build big buildings to get community feedback, and not just from the residents but also from representatives from the arts community, people who are experts in sustainability, school officials, small business owners – basically all of our community stakeholders.
Another important point, is that as it becomes more and more expensive to live here in terms of taxes and cost of living, it’s important that people have a say in how the City spends its dollars. I’m proposing a Participatory Budgeting Program, which is where each Ward will get a part of the budget that they can spend in their Ward or in conjunction with other wards on projects that they care about, like invest in a pilot project to narrow the street crossings at dangerous intersections or make upgrades to our parks so they become more important part of our resiliency strategy. I think the key to making development community-drive is making sure real people are at the table when these decisions are being made.
Other than what you just talked about, what do you think are the big issues that you want to address when you get elected?
I know I already spoke about resiliency, but I really do think it’s one of the most important things the Downtown Councilperson has to focus on. One of the best things about Jersey City is that it’s right on the Hudson River and we have access to the waterfront, but the reality is with where we are located is we have to take seriously the increasing risks of climate change and how they’re going to impact us. The other thing that’s really important are small businesses. I’ve knocked on thousands of doors since the start of the campaign, yes, thousands, it’s been incredible, and I’ve spoken with hundreds of voters. I talk about preserving the character and charm of downtown Jersey City, and when I say small businesses are an important part of that equation, people’s eyes light up. They get it and they really love being able to go to their local bookstore, their favorite coffee shop, or even their friendly neighborhood pharmacist. There are things that the city can do to make sure those businesses are here for generations to come and that’s something that I think some of the bigger developers and other private actors in the city should consider. Small businesses are amenities for people who live here, so what can the city do to make it easier for them to operate and also encourage other entities to help support them.
I feel the same way about our arts community. Supporting them is another number one priority for me. The arts community played a role in creating the vibrant, exciting community we live in. They also are a really important economic driver in the city. We need to help them, whether it’s helping them get more state dollars, we don’t get nearly as many state dollars as other counties do for the arts, so let’s set our artists up to get those state dollars. Whether it’s helping them create a network of funding that’s diverse and includes both private funding and foundation funding. And then there’s also figuring out ways to use the arts in the most economically disadvantaged areas of the city and making sure the arts are accessible to all. Those are all things the government can do to bolster and support the arts.
Oh gosh, there are so many issues I plan to focus on. I want to get money out of politics on the local level by creating a small-dollar matching program for residents who make grass-roots campaign contributions to local candidates, I want to support our schools, I want to expand tenant protections, and so much more. People should check out my website to learn more, symesforjc.com.
How has it been so far, running a campaign?
It’s been exciting, scary, challenging, and really invigorating. All the things that make life worth living. It’s not easy, and every day there’s a high and a low. The reality is in life, if something doesn’t make you a little bit uncomfortable or if it’s a little bit hard, it’s probably not worth doing, to be honest. I feel like I’ve grown a lot and I’ve made mistakes, but I’ve also had lots of really wonderful moments along the way.
So, Candice Osborne is currently in the Council seat. You have big shoes to fill!
Really big shoes! I am definitely a big supporter of Councilperson Candice Osborne, and I had intended to vote for her and work on her re-election campaign. Councilperson Candice Osborne is very accessible to her constituents. That is the number one thing that I want to continue. Candice is very smart and very hardworking, and she juggled a lot between having a full-time job and being a really responsive councilperson. I don’t know if you know this, but she actually passed the most legislation of any of her colleagues during her time in the Council, so that’s pretty impressive. She’s also a single mom, she has a lot on her plate, and I think all of that is amazing. I’m not quite sure how she did it, to be honest!
I’m in a different situation than her because I quit my full-time job and I plan to serve my first year as a city councilperson full-time to give myself the space and time to learn the ropes and also build the relationships you need to be a successful and effective advocate on behalf of your constituents. I think Councilperson Candice Osbourne is great and I have big shoes to fill, but I’m confident that I can do it.
Can you speak about being a woman in politics?
It’s interesting. I’ve never been a man in politics, so I can only speak to my own experiences. Some people are really excited about the idea of supporting women candidates who they know are smart, hardworking, and have good values. I’ve definitely had a lot of supporters say to me, “I think you’re great for the job, and I’m going to support you. Plus, it’s a bonus that you’re a woman.!” And, I think that is great. There are some things that I have to speculate perhaps male candidates don’t have to deal with. A lot of people give me advice on my hair, my clothes, and how to speak in terms of which words to avoid because I’m a woman.
People also make assumptions about me based on the way that I look. There’s been a lot of talk about my age in the media, general references to my “youth” or remarks about how “young” I am. The men running for office don’t get the same treatment, which is funny, since I’m older than all my male opponents.
On the positive side, I think being a woman candidate, door-knocking, meeting people one on one, and being able to empathize and to talk really honestly, somewhat emotionally, about the issues people care about, has made it easier for me to connect with people. That’s my favorite part of the campaign. I love being out on the field, knocking on doors and talking to voters, and it’s really remarkable how quickly people will open up if you ask them the right questions.
You had a small business meeting. Can you talk more about that?
Small business, as I’ve said, is a really important part of what makes Jersey City an exciting place to live. I’ll tell you, when I was on the board of the neighborhood association, it really is the small businesses who are the ones willing to donate the pizza for your meeting, willing to donate coffee and bagels, or willing to cut a $200 check towards our various events that we have. Small businesses are invested in our local community. I know that there are things that local government can do to make it easier for businesses to open and operate. Jersey City actually has some amazing programming already, and I want to build on that, make sure small businesses know about it, and that they’re taking advantage of it. For the small business round table, I invited small business owners to come and have a discussion about what challenges they face and what they wish for themselves and colleagues in the small business sector. We had over 20 business owners participate, and it was from a really diverse sector of businesses. We had bookstores, a colonics business, puppy care places, restaurants and bars, dry cleaners, pharmacists. What was most interesting to me is a lot of the issues that they had were cross-sectional. There were simple things, like, “This obligation to get the city license needs to be tweaked,” or “This city process needs to be improved a little bit.” Then there were bigger issues like hiring, where a lot of them said they have trouble finding people who are going to stay and work for them in the long term, and then general frustrations on renting space, doing a buildout There were also a lot of ideas that they had together, like potentially have a small business advocate within City Hall to be sort of a liaison between them and the EDC or other government departments. I got really great ideas from them, and I shared with them the fact that voters’ eyes light up when I talk about small business. I think they were happy to hear that.
That’s awesome. Who are you, though? What do you do for fun?
Who am I? I’m a total dork! I sing in a choir committed to the Great American Song Book, which is primarily early Broadway and jazz standards. It’s called North River Sing, we sing every Sunday night, and then we have a few performances in the winter and spring. I’m also on the board of non-profit, which doesn’t sound like fun but it really is. It’s called the Waterfront Project, and I got involved over four years ago when I first moved to Hudson County. The mission of the organization is to help low-income people access the justice system. If you got an eviction notice from your landlord, we’d give you free legal representation, or if you’re on Social Security and there’s a mix-up with your benefits, we would help you get it straightened out. We have a program for seniors, we do free wills for them, so it’s giving free legal help to people who need it most. We’re based here in Jersey City. We are on target to help over 2,000 people this year. When I got my job in the private sector, it was important for me to still feel like I was fulfilling my purpose and investing in other people, so getting very involved with that non-profit was a big part of that. I serve in a lot of boards. I’m on the board of the library here, I’m also an Advisory Trustee for the Liberty Science Center board, which has been amazing for me. I think anyone who’s spending time with Paul Hoffman, who runs Liberty Science Center, knows he is a visionary and it’s great to be in a space where people are thinking really big ideas on how to impact not just Jersey City but the world. Other than that, I hang out with my friends and my dog, Wyatt!
What’s your favorite Jersey City hangout spot?
I love Taqueria. I love the tacos, I love the guacamole. I spend a lot of time at Roman Nose, and WORD Bookstore.
On this campaign, I feel like I’m going to gain 35 pounds because I’m eating my way around Jersey City, which has been really fun. Even though I ride my Citi Bike all around town meeting at coffee shops with constituents, I’ve had baked goods from just about every coffee shop downtown. I have a dog that I take to the dog park, and we walk every day. Lately, I’m spending literally all of my time in Downtown Jersey City, which has been really great. It’s actually been pretty fun.
Why vote for you?
People should vote for me because I’m the real deal. I’m going to work really hard for people. My whole purpose of running is making sure that we take what’s really great about Jersey City and holding onto it, and then also thinking big. I want Jersey City to be a national model that grad students all across the country are writing papers about because we’re doing everything right in terms of the big things that matter, like making sure the people who’ve been here long term and our young families get to stay, making sure that we have a safe city that provides equal opportunity to everyone who lives here, making sure that we are doing the cutting edge things we need to do to make sure this city’s resilient in the face of climate change, and making sure it’s still a beautiful and happy place for people to live.