New Monmouth assemblywoman sets sights on pandemic recovery

January 18, 2022

New Jersey Monitor

In the uproar over the pandemic’s impact on schools, there may be no more dreaded place to be than on a school board.

Parents have packed meetings to demand or reject masking, vaccine mandates, and virtual learning. They’ve protested and threatened school board members. Sometimes, the police even get called.

But Vicky Flynn was happy to be at the center of it all, as president of the Holmdel Board of Education until last year.

“That’s where ground zero is now for those conversations,” Flynn said. “If I wasn’t on the school board, I would be the parent going to every meeting.”

Now, as she’s settling into her first days as a first-term legislator in the New Jersey Assembly, she still has schools on her mind.

Flynn, a Republican representing Monmouth County’s 13th Legislative District, said one of her top priorities as she heads into office is fighting to keep schools open. She fears the pandemic’s frequent educational disruptions will have lifelong effects for students — and that could impact the long-range well-being of the entire state.

“As a legislator, I would like to make sure our community colleges are equipped to handle learning loss and have them working hand in hand with high schools to ensure students get academic support. I’m also very concerned about the special education community. And we need to focus on literacy. Science shows that if kids don’t learn to read until third grade, it’s a problem,” Flynn said. “We have to be a leader in this country in how we’re going to address the loss of learning.”

Flynn beat incumbent Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso in the GOP primary last spring, after DiMaso lost the county party’s support, then with running mate Assemblyman Gerry Scharfenberger handily defeated their Democratic opponents in November.

Flynn is one of 10 female newcomers elected to the New Jersey Assembly last fall, a wave of women widely welcomed in a Statehouse whose legislators don’t reflect the diversity of the state. The election was especially good for Republicans, with a record number of new Republican women being elected to the Legislature.

“What that means is when the Republican caucus meets, women’s voices will be far better represented than they were before, and that’s important because those women will bring to those caucus meetings different life experiences, different perspectives, and different understandings of issues, which we hope will inform the positions of the party,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics.

“It’s really about impact,” Walsh added. “It’s hard, if you’re one of only a handful of women in the room, to have those perspectives heard. There is strength in numbers, and that’s an important change in this last election.”

A mother’s influence

Born in Hoboken, Flynn is a lifelong New Jersey resident who graduated from Rutgers and Seton Hall Law School.

She’s an attorney who started her law career clerking for the recently retired New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Jaynee LaVecchia. She left Hill Wallack’s Red Bank office to start her own firm this month, a move she said she made to accommodate her new duties as an assemblywoman.

Her late mother planted the seed for her public service. Kathryn E. Flynn was a Moonachie councilwoman so beloved in the tiny Bergen County borough they named a civic center after her.

Flynn’s first foray into politics came in 2011 in Nutley, where she served on the school board for two years. She was elected to serve on the Holmdel Board of Education in 2016, became board president in 2018, and held that post through the end of last year. She ran unsuccessfully for the Holmdel Township Committee in 2020.

Although Flynn was just 13 when she lost her mother to cancer, she still remembers the last lesson her mother imparted, a lesson that helped shaped her views today on virtual learning.

“She died on a Saturday. But before she died, she told my aunt that we all had to go to school on Monday,” Flynn said. “It was the last piece of guidance she could give us, as kids, that not only when you’re down, you got to get back up, but also going back to school is critical.”

Flynn has a personal stake in the issue. She and her husband, a civil engineer, have three daughters, ages 12, 15, and 17. All three have struggled in various ways with pandemic schooling restrictions.

Holmdel, a district of 3,000 students, was among the state’s first public school districts to return to full-time, in-person classes during the pandemic’s first year.

As a school board member, Flynn wrote Gov. Phil Murphy several letters inviting him to see the $1.3 million in infrastructure improvements Holmdel schools did in the summer of 2020 that the district said helped contain the spread of the virus. That included everything from improving air filtration to installing germ-killing ultraviolet lighting to putting antimicrobial gel throughout schools.

“We knew this would work in the state,” said Flynn.

Now that she’s a legislator, Flynn still hopes she can work with the governor and her legislative colleagues to try to reverse the pandemic’s damage, even though Murphy and a majority of the Legislature are Democrats.

“I don’t want to be a bomb thrower. I don’t think that works,” she said. “I want to be part of the solution.”

Still, she doesn’t think the answer is Murphy redeclaring the public health emergency, as he did last week. She said another Assembly priority of hers is to figure out “what can we do legislatively to address this constant use of emergency powers to do things that the legislative body says no to.”

“I feel like what is going on in this state is a big slap in the face of the Constitution,” she added. “I understood the need of the governor to use the emergency powers initially, but I feel like we’ve reached a point where it’s sidestepping the legislative process and needs to stop.”

She knows she doesn’t stand alone in her pandemic frustrations. She thinks that helped propel her into office.

“The level of frustration over what’s going on in schools should not be ignored,” she said.

For years, she often was one of the only women at the political events she attended. But that’s changing, she added. She sees more women engaging in politics, both as candidates and behind the scenes.

“I’m no longer the unicorn in the room. There’s a shift going on. The moms, the grandmoms, they’ve been woken up,” Flynn said. “We want an environment in which our kids and our families can succeed, and we see that being taken away from us, and we’re not going to stand for it anymore.”