A Q&A with Rebecca Symes, a candidate for Jersey City Ward E Council. After growing up watching her mother serve her community as a city councilmember, Rebecca shares what’s motivating her to run today — and the support that’s powering her to win.
Tell us what made you decide to get off the sidelines and run for office.
Jersey City is close to my heart. I was the president of my neighborhood association, I serve on the board of the library and the local science center. I’ve helped build a nonprofit in Jersey City that provides free legal help to residents. I’m excited for this new opportunity to serve my friends and neighbors on the issues that matter to them.
When I think about what brought me here, running for office, I recognize that I’ve been lucky to have role models of women in politics. My mother served on the school board and city council in my hometown. When I was in college, I interned for Massachusetts State Senator Therese Murray. At the time, there weren’t many women in politics, so it was exciting to work with a strong confident and effective female politician. And of course, working for Senator Gillibrand, I had another amazing role model and example of what women can achieve when they’re elected to public office.
It turns out the incumbent who holds the seat I’m running for now, Candice Osborne, was the first woman elected to the represent our district. She decided not to run again and encouraged me to run. I have to be honest: If she hadn’t encouraged me, I probably wouldn’t have taken the leap so soon. But she saw something in me and encouraged me to go for it.
What would you say to women who think they’re not qualified to run for office?
A lot of times, women are really involved behind the scenes. I’ve volunteered in other campaigns, I’ve volunteered in all sorts of charitable and civic endeavors. And it often feels like the women are doing a lot of the work, but the people who seek out the leadership positions are men.
I don’t know where that comes from, but I would encourage women to realize that you are qualified. If there’s an issue that you really care about and you want to change it, you’re qualified. And typically, running for office is the best way to directly make that change that you care about.
What support has meant the most to you as you’re running?
Any support I can get! I tell everyone that in every single day of this campaign, there’s a very high high and a very low low. So sometimes, just a heartfelt, sincere word of encouragement from a volunteer or someone I meet when I’m out knocking on voters’ doors — that’s part of what keeps me going.
When running for office, you expect your close friends, family and colleagues to pitch in, but what’s really amazing is when people come out of the woodwork. They see something on Facebook, or they met me briefly at a transit stop during our morning campaigning. And then they get involved after our encounter. That is so touching to me. It means that we share a vision for downtown Jersey City and that we’re going to work on it together.
What are the challenges specific to women running for office?
I get a lot of comments about my appearance, my clothing, my young age — even though I’m older than all my male opponents. I don’t think men deal with that as much. The personal attacks, too, are hard — and the name calling. I had an opponent call me Sneaky Rebecca and do this whole meme. It so reminds me of “Crooked Hillary,” like some people think there’s something automatically distrustful about women who want to run for office.
Fundraising can also be tough for women. I spent the majority of my career working in the nonprofit and government sectors, so my network includes a lot of people who work in helper professions, whether they’re social workers, community organizers, public interest lawyers, or government employees. I’m so grateful because those people have reached into their pockets and made donations. But they’re not people who can make large donations to my campaign. So fundraising is difficult just because of the network many women have.
Is there something about the world we’re in now that made you decide, yes, I’ve got to run?
Absolutely. I think people feel like they don’t have any control over what’s happening in our country. And that definitely feeds into local politics, as well: When people feel out of control, they have a lot of anxiety about their future. And I feel very strongly that mid-sized and larger cities have an opportunity to make government more accountable and ensure equal access to opportunities for residents in ways that we aren’t going to see achieved on the federal level for many years. So it’s an exciting time to try to shape the future of Jersey City.
What else can women do to get involved politically, other than run for office?
Finding and supporting women who are running for office is really important. Be public with your support, be brave about it. Share your support with your friends and neighbors in person and on social media. If you can make the time, pitch in on a campaign, put your expertise to work for women who are running for office. I have a local mom who comes to the campaign office for one hour a day, just after dropping off her child at school. That hour of volunteer work, that grassroots effort, really makes a difference.
I can’t tell you how key it is to have early financial support, as well. The first contribution I got was a $500 check from a woman who had run for office in Jersey City a number of years ago. I invited her to lunch to get her advice. That was a big, big check for both of us, and she said she wrote it because she wanted to support women running for office. I keep a picture of that check to this day.
Taking that risk during the early stages to show your support and, if you can, making that time or financial investment, that’s what we need more of from women.
We also need to make sure women are getting involved in their political parties. In the state of New Jersey, we have a formalized political party committee structure that reserves half of the committee seats for women. It’s not as big of a leap to run for a committee seat, but it gets you inside the apparatus that’s picking the next people running for office. Getting more women into that pipeline is critical.
Why do we need more women in elected office?
When I was on the ground with Senator Gillibrand in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I watched her and she barely went near the television cameras or reporters. Instead she was going into people’s homes, she was connecting one-on-one with families, she was finding out what they needed to make it through the next day or two. She was securing food, shelter, and clothing for people.
The idea that you can be a U.S. senator who’s in charge of passing federal legislation that impacts hundreds of millions of people’s lives, and also connect with individuals on such an intimate and honest, personal level — that’s always stuck with me. Women can think about the big picture while also connecting with people and letting empathy inform their decisions. That’s why we need more women in politics.