Published June 8, 2018 | The Record/NorthJersey.com | Sarah Nolan
The friends and family of 24-year-old Alyssa Dawson, thought to be the youngest woman currently holding public office in New Jersey, have always seen her as committed, driven and kind of a nerd.
But to others, the Westwood councilwoman's sheer presence on the dais, considering her age, may be somewhat unexpected. Her socially liberal views as a gay Republican and her willingness to see beyond party lines may seem unconventional.
Dawson, a who has worked on Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno's staff, is hopeful that as she embarks on her political career, that will change.
“The bottom line is, we are the future,” Dawson said of millennials. “It may sound cliché, but it’s the truth. Unless more young people get involved, I don’t see how we can continue to make progress.”
Dawson was appointed last month to replace Councilman Peter Grefrath, who had resigned.
She received her party's nomination in Tuesday's Primary Election to run for one of two open seats on the Borough Council, and she will run with Councilman Raymond Arroyo in November. The pair will face off against Democrats Jodi Murphy and Dale Hawrylczak.
Despite her age, Dawson is already well-versed in politics. In addition to being on Guadagno's staff, Dawson worked in the office of former Gov. Chris Christie.
Giancarlo Ghione, chairman for the New Jersey Young Republican Federation and executive director of the Bergen County Republican Organization, said it feels great to see a young Republican break the glass ceiling as the youngest woman serving in the state.
"Bergen County Young Republicans has seen numerous of our members assume leadership roles and it is great knowing we have a leader like Alyssa in Westwood and within the organization," he said.
Dawson's interest in government started early with lessons from her mother, a history teacher at Zion Lutheran Church & Christian School in Westwood. But it was the internship in Christie's office before her senior year at Concordia College, where she majored in history, that "really set the tone for everything," she said.
Dawson said she took phone calls from people dealing with real problems while she worked in the Governor's Office of Constituent Relations, like a child suffering from addiction or a home that was destroyed in Superstorm Sandy.
“It was the best preparation I could’ve had at such a young age – to deal with and actually solve problems,” Dawson said. “Government has morphed into something that people view as more political, but it’s really about coming up with solutions to problems. I was on the front lines.”
In Trenton, Dawson found inspiration and a mentor in Guadagno. She would go on to become Guadagno’s scheduler during her run for governor last year, which she lost to Gov. Phil Murphy.
The “LG,” as Dawson fondly calls Guadagno, said the new councilwoman worked “eight days a week, 24 hours a day” for her.
“She’s seen it all and done it all and she’s not even 25,” Guadagno said. “She’s gained insight into government in a way that is well beyond her years and I would say well beyond the years of many people who become active in their communities.”
It was Guadagno’s role as a public servant, not a politician, that set her apart in Dawson’s eyes. Guadagno's willingness to stand up for beliefs that may not be considered traditionally Republican is another quality Dawson admires.
Dawson describes herself as socially liberal and fiscally conservative. Red or blue, party lines don't define her.
“Part of the problem with our nation is we have these two set parties that people try to fit into,” she said. “I don’t think anyone is going to fit into any party in its totality – it may upset people, but who cares? So what if I’m gay, so what if I’m a Republican – these are my beliefs and I’m going to fight for them.”
As a young person serving in a leadership role, Dawson is hopeful that others her age will take notice and see the value of sharing their time and voices with their communities.
It’s important that they do, Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics said.
“We want diversity in all ways because it brings a range of perspectives and experiences into the mix,” she said. “Different perspectives help shape the conversation when you’re making policy decisions and provide for a much richer conversation and therefore a richer policy-making process.”
And the earlier the better, Sinzdak said. Voting rates trend lower among young people – getting them involved could make a difference long-term, she said.
"It's thrilling when you see young people running for and winning office - it helps set a precedent," Sinzdak said.
Arroyo, Dawson’s running mate, agrees.
“Youth and enthusiasm are important in any campaign, particularly so for the Republican party,” Arroyo said, adding that there’s a false perception that the Republican party is not as diverse as it is. “Alyssa offers a voice to a demographic that hadn’t been represented on a local level, or at any level really, and it adds a completely different dynamic to governance.”
Democrat Jodi Murphy, who will run against Dawson in November, said she supports younger adults entering the political field in different ways. But, she cautioned, the experience that comes with age is also valuable.
"I do know from my own life, that I have grown exponentially since my 20s," she said. "My life experiences, work experiences, volunteering experiences, becoming a parent, and more have shaped who I am, and my view of my community. It is an important part of development, and understanding that should never be overlooked."
Dawson said she's hopeful her place on the council will increase the visibility of young people in Westwood, and also attract them to town – not an easy feat when many millennials are leaving New Jersey because it’s too expensive.
Sarah Neibart, a 25-year-old councilwoman in Mendham Township who previously held the title of youngest woman in office in New Jersey, has some of the same goals.
“We need young people to stay in New Jersey,” she said. “One way to do that is by empowering them to be part of the solution, and working to fix the affordability crisis in our state.”
Neibart, who was also a Guadagno staffer, said it's concerning that there aren't more young people seeking elected office.
"It is up to Alyssa, myself, and our millennial office-holding colleagues to mentor others and support our peers as they get involved in the political process," Neibart said.
Dawson said after her stint in Trenton, coming home to Westwood felt right.
“I want to focus on Westwood, and to me, that’s more important than the red or blue, or what I want to do in five years,” she said.