Tackling tough political issues seems to come naturally for New Jersey State Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter. She’s been in office just four years, yet her optimism and her results make you want to believe in the political process.
Her key projects are complex ones, including pushing for uniform access to mental health care, raising the minimum wage for workers, ending discriminatory hiring practices and offering urban centers some modicum of protection from state takeovers.
The work sounds daunting but the Paterson, New Jersey native says making a difference, as cliché as that sounds, is why she entered politics. “My godmother, former Assemblywoman Elease Evans, served in office [30 years] and was ready to retire,” says Sumter, 42. “She was adamant that there was someone coming behind her to carry the torch and to carry on the work of the people and that was the genesis of me wanting to get into politics.”
A Democratic legislator since 2012, Sumter represents the 35th district in Bergen and Passaic Counties and she sponsored 16 bills that were signed into law by Republican Governor Chris Christie; more than any other legislator in recent memory. She currently serves as Majority Conference Leader and was Deputy Speaker for a one-year term. Her other leadership positions include vice chairperson on the Labor Committee and second vice chairperson on the Legislative Black Caucus.
Her work resulted in being nominated by Emily’s List for the national Gabrielle Giffords Rising Star Award and her name has been bandied around as a possible 2017 candidate for New Jersey governor, something she’s comfortable hearing.
The soft-spoken politician mixes humor with seriousness when she discusses her objectives. She even interrupts herself to provide examples of why certain issues affect her personally, including the ongoing conversation surrounding equal pay for equal work. “We’re reliant on employers to make it a fair playing field where it’s based on experience, not based on sex,” says Sumter.
She tells the story of being a 17-year-old stockroom worker for a clothing manufacturer, and her shock at discovering a male coworker’s hourly pay. They were doing the same job with the same duties, yet he was earning more.
“I went to the manager and asked why am I making less even though I’m throwing the boxes the same way? My wage was increased but the male employee was reprimanded because we also have a policy of not sharing wages,“ says Sumter. “This practice exacerbates women earning less than their male counterparts.”
Salary transparency is something she’d like to see happen on a national scale. “I’m working on a federal program where all wages are transparent and will come down to a state level,” she says. “If the federal level doesn’t act, we’ll try to do our part and that’s why it’s great to have a state-run government.”
When it comes to the minimum wage debate, she sees low wages as having a direct impact on family stability because parents may have to take on additional jobs to make ends meet. Says the politician: “The reality of a minimum wage that does not allow for living above the poverty levels in states like New Jersey is a travesty in 2016.”
“I had a tip bill [for] folks making $2.13 per hour [who were] expected to make the rest of their [pay] up in tips,” explains Sumter, offering an example for why she pushed for a rise in the base rate offered to those expected to earn money off tips. “When you are in a great depression, the folks that are servers–70 percent were women–can’t even afford to purchase the meal they were serving because their wages were so low.”
She is similarly passionate when discussing the issue of universal access to mental health services. She’s served as director of Behavioral Health Services at Hackensack UMC Mountainside Hospital for nine years and knows what it's like to deal with undiagnosed or untreated health conditions.
“It’s one of the most complicated systems to access when you talk about mental health,” says Sumter. She adds that cultural differences can further delay the process of acknowledging that treatment services are needed and that issues of equality don’t go away when dealing with health care. “There are disparities in care, especially in our communities of color,” she says. “[There are] people dying of premature diseases because they didn’t get treatment or have access to professionals to live life longer.”
She goes on, demonstrating her empathetic nature.
“I am a progressive leader who knows all too well what it means to suffer from diseases such as mental health, diabetes, hypertension, cancer and not have access to affordable healthcare either through government assistance, an employer or out of pocket.”
Her district includes the city of Paterson, where talk of state takeovers of urban centers like hers could lead local taxpayers to lose their voice. “The state takeover of urban centers not only in N.J. but across the country is a tactic that disenfranchises the citizens of that community.”
She brings up the example of Flint, Michigan, where the lead-contaminated water scandal and state inefficiency led to a reorganization that pushed local taxpayers out of the discussion; they have a limited voice now, she says. “While regulatory stipulations need to be put in place, local oversight is still needed if we are to have any lessons learned from Michigan.”
In her state, the financial collapse of some casinos in Atlantic City and their subsequent tax bailout offered proof of longstanding issues and yet another example of the possibility of a state takeover. “Fiscal mismanagement does not occur overnight,” says Sumter. “It was 20 years in the making with a state fiscal monitor in place since 2010. Millions never received their share of casinos health pensions and have to start over with no accountability; and they are villainized without additional revenue being targeted to support the balancing of the budget.”
She manages all this and has a family too; she’s been married 17 years to Kenneth Sumter and the couple has both a daughter and a son in high school. When she’s not working she’s playing golf and travelling, plus volunteering with displaced workers and youth groups.
She welcomes talk of becoming the governor of New Jersey and affably plays the “woman card” discussed by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump by pointing out that a woman’s ability to nurture is a boon in the political arena.
“I am one woman sitting around with four other men in leadership in the people’s house,” she says. “As women we think compassion and people first.”
Sumter encourages inclusive government and listening to her constituents for solutions. “We’ve had a tenuous time with a governor that continues to berate people, [there are] no conversations of people sitting round the table,” she says. “It’s time for us to unite people. We’re much better together than disjointed.”