A mom on a mission, new Assembly member eyes fair school funding

By: - February 14, 2022 7:00 am

Marilyn Piperno is sworn in during the Assembly’s Jan. 11, 2022 reorganization meeting at the War Memorial in Trenton (Amanda Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Marilyn Piperno is one of those moms. The PTO moms. The “big mouth” moms.

A mother of three, Piperno wears the self-anointed nickname proudly.

“I like to think of myself as a good big mouth, a working mom who’s very involved in our local PTO, very involved in the youth sports foundation, very involved in my children’s religious education,” Piperno said. “I try to advocate and volunteer and just do good to improve our community.”

So last year, when Jersey Shore schools faced losing tens of millions of dollars in state aid under a controversial school-funding law, Piperno decided lawmakers in Trenton needed to hear her big mouth.

Piperno, a Republican who lives in Colts Neck, had never run for public office. But she jumped into the race for a New Jersey Assembly seat in Monmouth County’s 11th Legislative District, and in November, she and fellow Republican Kim Eulner squeaked out a win. The pair snagged just a few hundred votes more than Joann Downey and Eric Houghtaling, the Democratic incumbents who had held the seats since 2016.

Piperno works as a fitness instructor, and she joins a group of 16 other Legislature newcomers that includes truck driversrealtors, a crane operator, an electrician, a retired firefighter/emergency medical technician, and a minister. She thinks their wins are partly rooted in their “everyday” appeal.

“There’s a reason why folks like us, everyday working people, are getting elected,” Piperno said. “People just want someone who is not the same-old-schtick politician. We’re grassroots, we’re community, we’re volunteers, we’re activists, we’re advocates, we’re people that will use common sense and good logic and talk about kitchen table issues and bring some passion, and maybe even innocence, to the existing process in Trenton.”

A fan of fitness — and fair funding for schools

A Long Island native, Piperno studied literature and communications at Pace University in Westchester, N.Y., and worked in advertising sales in Manhattan after college. That’s when she first moved to New Jersey, settling in Fort Lee because she couldn’t afford to live in New York City.

She and her husband, who owns a commercial construction contracting business in Manhattan, moved to his hometown of Matawan in 2000 and Colts Neck a year later to raise their family.

As a stay-home mom, she got hooked on fitness and began teaching fitness classes part-time at various clubs and gyms. She studied exercise in her spare time and now teaches everything from kickboxing to Pilates to barre. She’s also working toward becoming a certified nutrition coach.

“I’m certified in everything except for Zumba and full proper yoga,” she said. “When you go down that fitness path, it just has so many tentacles into living well and living better. I love talking nutrition and supplements. Even now, with COVID, I try to educate and help people, like upping their vitamin D and taking extra supplements to keep their immunity up.”

Her fitness fervor may have given her greater staying power as she knocked on doors during her election campaign. But she didn’t hit the sidewalks to count steps, she said.

“I do have a lot of energy, and I was always ready to door-knock — not because I looked at it as exercise,” she said. “It’s my obligation, and it’s my service. It’s me being a good big mouth and advocating and being active in my community.”

School funding will be her biggest priority in Trenton, she said.

The school funding debate dates to 2018, when New Jersey changed how it funds local public schools under a controversial law known as S2. It was pushed by then-Senate President Steve Sweeney as a way to “restore fairness” to state school funding aid.

But in that undertaking, scores of districts saw their state aid plummet by millions of state dollars. Asbury Park and Neptune, which are in Piperno’s legislative district, were among those hardest hit statewide.

Piperno will introduce a bill, with Eulner as another prime sponsor, to increase funding to impacted districts through an appropriation from the state’s Property Tax Relief Fund.

Republican strategist Jeanette Hoffman agreed that discontent over school funding cuts — along with backlash against Gov. Phil Murphy — likely boosted voter turnout there and helped lift Piperno and Eulner into office. Forty-nine percent of Monmouth County’s registered voters cast ballots in the November election, compared to just 40% statewide, state data shows. 

“This district is the quintessential swing district. Issues like affordability and property taxes are big here,” Hoffman said. “Murphy refused to address those issues, and that definitely hurt the Democratic incumbents, when you had a spirited Republican ticket going out pounding the pavement, talking about the school funding formula being unfair, talking about property taxes being way too high, talking about affordability, talking about mask mandates and lockdowns. All those issues worked in their favor.”

Sen. Vin Gopal, a Democrat, narrowly held off a GOP challenger to win re-election, making the 11th the only split district statewide.

Won’t be “boxed in”

Beyond school funding, Piperno said she hopes to help small business owners, students, and others recover from the pandemic. Skyrocketing college costs and affordable housing also are issues she thinks could have legislative fixes.

“As a mom with two boys in college, I’m scratching my head saying why isn’t anyone capping tuition?” she said, adding: “It’s hard at any age and stage to find affordable housing in New Jersey.”

She will be serving on the Assembly’s commerce, infrastructure and renewable energy, and human services committees.

Republicans picked up seven seats in the Legislature after the last election, and some of the GOP newcomers seem eager to take state politics in a more conservative direction. Sen. Edward Durr (R-Gloucester) introduced a bill to ban abortions after 12 weeks, even though lawmakers in the last session passed legislation to protect abortion rights in New Jersey.

Piperno declined to comment on Durr’s bill and said she didn’t want to be “boxed in” by her party affiliation.

“It’s frustrating that we have to be labeled anything,” Piperno said, adding that she is “common sense, moderate, very passionate and very empathetic and human with social issues, and then responsible and fiscally conservative when it comes to how we are spending taxpayer dollars.”

She said she aims to work across party lines to “be disruptive, in a proper way, to what isn’t working anymore.”

“I’m not doing this because I want to be governor. I’m not doing this to get a press release,” she said. “I’m doing it because I really believe that my good big mouth and a little of my fiery personality and passion can reach across the aisle.”

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.