At age 32, Assemblywoman Maria Rodriguez-Gregg (R-Medford) is one of the youngest members of the state Legislature.
Elected last fall to her first term, the Marlton mother of two said her motivation behind getting to Trenton was a desire “to create positive policy,” particularly for millennials.
“There's certainly apathy when it comes to elected officials,” Rodriguez-Gregg said. “Coming from that younger generation, I wanted to step up and do something and have my voice heard.”
She's quickly sought to position herself to tackle the state's economic issues. Just last month, Rodriguez-Gregg held a roundtable discussion at the Statehouse featuring business leaders from a wide range of industries and sectors, seeking insight on New Jersey's business climate.
“I think when I first came in (as) a young woman, a mother, there was an assumption that I was there just because I was concerned about women's issues. Really, I'm concerned about economic issues and job issues and job creation. It was (about) trying to get a seat at that table, to have a voice in that arena,” she said.
And as was the case with the roundtable event, sometimes getting a seat at the table means creating your own table altogether.
“Sometimes, that's what you have to do,” she said.
Rodriguez-Gregg recently sat down with NJBIZ to talk millennials, business and what has surprised her most in her first year in Trenton.
NJBIZ: Do you feel that your age gives you any type of advantage or disadvantage in Trenton? How does it shape your perspective?
Maria Rodriguez-Gregg: I think it's a complete advantage because it does give me a more real-time perspective of what issues not just young people face, but I'm a mother as well, so parents (and just what) your everyday person in New Jersey faces. But definitely, from a younger perspective, it does give me a better real-time perspective.
NJBIZ: There's a sense among young people that Trenton, and Washington as well, doesn't understand their needs. Are you in a unique position to really understand some of the issues facing younger New Jerseyans?
MRG: Yes. … A lot of the older representatives, they have a lot of experience and a breadth of knowledge; however, some of them haven't been to college in a while. They haven't dealt with student debt in a while and they're settled in job positions, whereas you have a lot of this younger generation, the millennial generation, that are out of school looking for jobs and they face different issues. Having representatives of that generation that are also facing those similar issues obviously put me in a position to better represent their needs and interests.
NJBIZ: You brought up the topic of student debt, which is a huge issue concerning young people in New Jersey and elsewhere. What other current issues should millennials be focusing on?
MRG: Education issues. Right now … it's still kind of an older perspective on how we should train for jobs. It's your usual bachelor's degree program — however, a lot of those traditional education programs aren't really preparing millennials for the jobs that are open or out there now. There needs to be a concentration on not just the cost of education, but also making sure that education is partnering with business, that they're creating that public-private partnership, so that it's more tailored to have soon-to-be workers and employees better trained and have the skills that are needed in this job market to be competitive.
NJBIZ: Talk a little bit about your decision to go into politics at a young age. What was the motivation for doing so?
MRG: I care about public policy. I want to see good public policy created, and that's really it. I thought there wasn't enough of that. It was more of personal interest and that's a perspective of a lot of millennials. You see elected officials that are representing only party or personal interests rather than really representing the people that they were elected to represent.
NJBIZ: How do you get more young people involved in politics?
MRG: There are more and more young people that are starting to step up and get interested. I think that with the economic issues that a lot of this generation is facing, more are realizing that they need to speak up. … When it comes to outreach, it's really just creating policy that's going to better help them but, honestly, I don't have the answer when it comes to how do you get more young people. Really, I think that the more they see younger people representing them, the more they're going to want to get involved. I think talking about issues that speak to them, may make want to get them involved. Sometimes people get involved because there's an issue that matters to them, and that's how it's always been. For some, it's social issues at that young age and they start to speak up, and for some, it's economic issues. We're starting to see more economic issues.
NJBIZ: What has surprised you the most about Trenton so far?
MRG: I think on a state level, there's more cooperation when it comes to both parties … not just compromise, (but) there's more collaboration, which I think is much more important. There's always this assumption of it's us against them, them against us, and I've really been very happy at the amount of collaboration when it comes to creating legislation and policy. They're more policymakers than people assume.
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