Before a recent meeting of the local Democratic party, Lisa Stevens of Little Egg Harbor Township batted around slogan ideas with a supporter.
Reading from a notebook, the man offers: “New leaders, new vision, new direction, vote Lisa and Matt.”
“I like that one,” Stevens responds.
But the slogan she likes best is “Citizens, not politicians.”
Even though Stevens recently decided to run for a spot on the township committee in this community just outside Atlantic City, she doesn’t really want to be a “politician.”
She’s is a former social worker. The only office she held before was vice president of the psychology club in college, but she’s gotten a lot more involved around town in the year and a half after Superstorm Sandy.
The storm has changed the lives of Jersey Shore residents in countless ways. For many, their post-Sandy calendars look very different from their pre-storm days, with schedules dominated by construction projects and grant appointments. For others, like Stevens, their lives have taken sharp turns down new paths since the storm.
“I think I would have never paid attention to our township committee as much,” said Stevens. “Because I’m like the average person. I was working, I was, you know, someone else can go. I’ll read it in the paper. I think this was the springboard for me.”
After the storm, she became closer with her neighbors, she says. And she hates how long the recovery is taking, the way people tell her they’re not sure they’ll ever through this.
“So I do a lot of grant researching,” she said. “Even if I can find something to give somebody to say, ‘Here, here’s something for you. It’s a grant. I’m not eligible, but you may be.’ Unless people know about it, they have no idea these grants exist.”
When she went to sign up for a grant through the state’s Sandy Homeowner/Renter Assistance Program, she could tell the office was overwhelmed, so she offered to volunteer there. A few months later, they hired her.
Then one night, Stevens was a township committee meeting and, as they passed an ordinance she didn’t understand, she grew more and more frustrated.
“We were throwing good money after bad, after bad, after bad,” she said.
She decided to run.
Little Egg Harbor had its problems before the storm, Stevens says, including a high number of foreclosures. But after the storm, people really looked to the committee for help.
“We didn’t know where to turn,” she says. “None of us have ever experienced this. And so we really relied on our township committee to guide us. And what I’ve found out through my past year dealing with this as a home owner, is that we felt we were really misguided.”
Many shore residents share Steven’s frustrations, though they tend to blame the state government over their local officials. In a recent Quinnipiac University poll, 50 percent of New Jersey voters said they approved of Gov. Chris Christie’s management of storm rebuilding. That’s down from 85 percent a year ago.
Incumbent politicians at all levels are likely to be judged on their response to the storm come November. Congressional candidate Bill Hughes is hoping to challenge incumbent Frank LoBiondo this fall and when he dropped by the Democratic meeting in Little Egg Harbor, it was clear Sandy was an issue he planned to stress.
“How many people here were affected by Hurricane Sandy?” he asked the crowd.
A few dozen hands went up.
Then he asked: “How many people have gotten all the money they need to repair the house and get back in?”
No one raised their hand.