Debbie Wolpov said the Morris County Chamber of Commerce’s mission is to provide valuable programming that inspires its members and has a positive impact on the community.
“We all have a common theme. We serve our families. We build and run businesses and we connect to our small communities,” Wolpov, the CEO of Merx Payments, chair of the Women in Business Program and a member of the MCCC board of directors, said.
That’s why the business association invited Mikie Sherrill, New Jersey’s 11th District U.S. representative, to speak about her commitment to serve at its fourth annual Women in Business Luncheon, held recently at The Westin Governor Morris in Morristown.
Sherrill, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and former Sea King helicopter pilot, captivated the more than 250-person audience, talking about her background serving in the military and the U.S. Attorney’s Office — as well as juggling her career as a mom of four.
Sherrill sat down with Mary Dougherty, event chair, to discuss breaking the barriers between being a woman in politics and raising a family.
Here’s a look at chat, which has been edited for space and clarity:
Mary Dougherty: I’ve been lucky enough to hear your story in the last few years, so I know the answer to this question. But, for the rest of the audience, who would you say was your biggest influencer in your life?
Mikie Sherrill: My grandfather had a huge influence over my desire to serve in the military and apply. I would say, though, that my mom had a big influence as well.
She went back to work when I was 11 years old. And, full disclosure, I was horrible about it. I cheerfully told her stories of latchkey children. It was terrible, and yet I will tell all those guilty moms out there that I think the role model she has been for me has been hugely influential. When I went on, she ended up at Siemens as a government contractor and worked closely with the Air Force. And, as I went into serving in the Navy, she was really a touchstone for me, because she had dealt with so many military members. At that time, she did work very much in an industry dominated by men and I worked in the Navy, also an industry very much dominated by men. So, I think her going back to work probably provided us a deeper connection as as we’ve grown older. She now helps in my office.
MD: As a mother of four, a wife and a congresswoman, how do you balance that?
MS: I’m sure I’m speaking to the choir when I tell you that you never really figure out how to balance. I’ve spent time on maternity leave, when I was a stay-at-home mom and feeling completely overwhelmed. I have spent time at full-time, around-the-clock jobs. I’ve spent the time at 9-to-5 jobs. And now I’m spending the time in a job where I commute back and forth — and I have never cracked that code.
The nice part about now is, my husband is kind of been dragged into some of the kids’ activities more. When I was down in Washington last week, I got a text from my husband that said: ‘We need to talk. The soccer schedule is ridiculous.’
So, it’s a constant work in progress, I guess is the short answer.
MD: Great. And you’re lucky to have the help of him and the great family that you have. So, you talked about being one of very few women when you were in the Naval Academy. What are your experiences and how did you navigate the ship? Talk to us a little bit.
MS: I was very lucky. I was put on an aircraft carrier when I was a midshipman. We would go out to sea over the summer to do training and see the fleet, and it would help determine our service selection. So, I went on an aircraft carrier — which, when an aircraft carrier is deployed it has 5,500 people aboard — and there were women on and off, but for a little bit there (about a week) I was the only woman on that ship, which, luckily, it was fine.
I remember my mom’s saying, ‘Don’t get on that ship!’ And I said ‘Mom, they’re called orders for a reason! I have to go onto the ship.’
I do think that kind of experience, not just serving aboard a ship that had all men but serving aboard a ship with people from all different backgrounds across our country. To build connections with people from very different backgrounds I think has been a wonderful life skill and something that I worry a little bit in regard to our country now. We don’t have the universal draft. We have a lot of people that seem to only build relationships with people that are like them. I think that social media has allowed us to narrow our world and find those people that think like us. It’s critical that we broaden the people we hear from.
I have said many times that I think the 11th District of New Jersey is a place where the nation can really learn how to navigate this new world. I say that because we’re the most densely populated state in the nation, so we can’t be very insular. We have people in New Jersey from all different backgrounds and businesses with contacts all over the world. So, I do think we are a less insular place than most.
I remember, when I worked at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, my boss used to say it’s remarkable for how diverse and densely populated New Jersey is that we don’t have the amount of hate crimes that you see elsewhere. That we all kind of learned to navigate this with each other. I think it’s an important lesson for the nation.
MD: That’s a great point.
MS: I’m pretty high on New Jersey.
MD: I think we’re all with you.
So, one of the things we were wondering is, you had a very unorthodox view of where you wanted to be as far as a little girl, right? You wanted to be a Navy pilot and you knew that from a young age.
What would you tell us as parents when our children come up with this dream that might be a little nontraditional? How do we support that and how to know it’s their dream and not our lane that we want to keep them in?
MS: I think the hardest part for me as a parent is wanting to protect my child. Wanting to in some way manage their expectations. I have to really hold myself back sometimes and allow them to really try for things that I might think are a little outside of their grasp.
I’m saying this because my daughter ran for president of her fifth-grade class and there were about eight other kids running. I was really worried about her ability to win and that it would hurt her feelings if she didn’t do it. I really wanted to manage her expectations, but then I gave myself a pep talk and said: ‘No, this is great. I think she’s putting herself out there and I think that’s wonderful.’
And, so, I said to her: ‘Maggie, I just think it’s wonderful that you’re doing this. This is really great and I’m so proud of you. Even if you don’t win, you are really going for this and putting yourself out there. Like, I’m just so proud of you. And she looks to me, and goes, ‘You don’t think I’m going to win, do you?’
I thought I was being so good. And you know what? She didn’t win. And she told me, ‘I think it was just a popularity contest.’ But I will say I thought it was a great experience for her.
I think that’s what we have to do as parents, is kind of allow our children to fail. It’s the hardest thing, that we never want our kids to fail. And, yet, I’m sure many of you feel the same way. In my failures, I’ve learned some of the greatest life lessons. We need our children to be able to manage failure and to be able to move past it and keep pushing and keep trying for new things. And that’s what I have to walk myself back from, is wanting to just kind of wrap them in plastic and keep them safe.
MD:Great. Great suggestions, too. So, you’re here in a room full of your constituents. How can we help you?
MS: I feel so lucky, because so many of you have already been helping me. As I look around the room, I see people who I’ve gone to for health care advice or community advice and how to grow our economy, infrastructure, small businesses and more. There’s not an issue that has come up that I can’t find someone in the district who’s an expert on that. And I know that’s not happening elsewhere.
So, that’s been wonderful. I also think keeping engaged — I think that’s what we’ve been so lucky to have here in the 11th District is so many people participating in our democracy. It is a dream to come true for me because, growing up, the people that were engaged were Vietnam vets, the people that didn’t want to have the Vietnam war or people that were activated because of the Vietnam war. And, at the same time, the civil rights movement engaged in that.
And I always thought: ‘What is our fight? What are we going to do as a generation?’
We’re not going to get engaged in the same way, because we don’t have the draft, yet I’ve seen crowds come out just to advocate for gun safety legislation or to advocate for women. Just thousands of people coming out and really showing their dedication to our country and their commitment to our values in their engagement, and their beliefs that they could make a difference in our country. I’ve been so thrilled to see that here.
MD: That’s great. Now I’m going to open up for some Q&As from the audience.
Audience member: As a freshman congresswoman, do you feel like your voice is being heard, given the large size of the House, and are you having the impact that you hoped to have in that role?
MS: I am on one of the more difficult committees to get on as a freshman: House Armed Services. I really advocated strongly. Picatinny Arsenal is one of the largest employers in our district. With my background, I felt like that would be a great place for me to weigh in. So, I was appointed to the Armed Services Committee. I’m also in the Sciences and Technology Committee and I am chairwoman of the subcommittee. Space and Technology is one of those committees that has a broad purview. As the chairwoman of the oversight committee, I can call hearings on so many things that we care about here. I have already held hearings on infrastructure resilience, election security, how to ensure the 2020 election is secure, scientific integrity and more. Next week, I’ll be holding a field hearing here in New Jersey on lead in the water.
Audience member: As somebody who at such a young age knew that they wanted to serve, what tips do you have for young people that are interested in serving their communities?
MS: Well, that’s a great question. It’s going to sound a little counterintuitive, because I knew from a very young age that I wanted to go into the military. Part of my success was because I knew I wanted to do that. I had a of time to focus on it and develop what I needed to reach my goal. But I will also say, on the flip side, one of the best lessons I learned was when I turned down a job. I had very particularly in my mind what I wanted to do when I left my law firm. I was looking at several jobs and I thought I wanted to practice law on cutting-edge cases.
A friend of mine offered me a job at a nonprofit for what we call in-house counsel, their lawyer in the nonprofit. And I said no, because I had a particular thing I wanted to do. So, then I thought about it more and how interesting the group was and what they were doing and how it would work out well for various reasons. And I went back to him and I said: ‘You know, that was a pretty interesting opportunity. I’d like to talk to you more about it.’ And he said: ‘Yeah, it’s an interesting opportunity, which is why we filled that job last Friday. You would’ve been great.’
So, the next time I went to interview was the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and I wanted to be a federal prosecutor, but they weren’t hiring. They were in a federal hiring freeze, but the U.S. attorney said to me: ‘We really like you and we’d like to hire you. We can hire you as a contract worker, as an outreach and reentry coordinator.’ My initial gut reaction was, that’s not what I want to do, I want to be a federal prosecutor. Luckily, having that previous experience, I said: ‘That sounds interesting. Let me think about it. Let me find out more.’ The more I talked about it and the more I understood the job, the more interested I was. And, so, I told them I’d love to do it. That was my first job at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. I later became a federal prosecutor.
I think sometimes you just have to be open to possibilities. You can’t get yourself so narrowly focused on a particular set of circumstances that you miss some of the other opportunities that might come along. That would be my advice to anybody starting out or anybody really in business.
Audience member: My daughter wants to be in West Point. She’s a junior in high school. For the past few years, we’ve gone to the camp, we visit, we have our experience in the military. If she was your daughter, what would you tell her?
MS: So, that’s great. If you’re going to attend any one of the academies, they really have to want to do that. It’s not for everyone, as you can imagine. I would tell her to do community service, get used to serving your country and your community. And get in shape. The more she runs, the better she’ll be.
I got a book at the time; now, I’m sure there’s ways to go online. It’s a very involved process and involves doing applications through your Congress members and senators. So, try to find either a book or go online and figure out how to do it. And then get in touch with our office, because we have information centers.
Audience member: But as a mother?
MS: It’s a unique decision to make, even more unique for women.
I think the more exposure she has to West Point, the better. You have to make sure she knows as much as she can about what she’s starting to do. But, then, also be as willing to say at some point, if it’s not the right place for them, that they have other opportunities, because it’s a huge commitment. It sounds like she’s doing all the right things to really educate herself what that’s like.
But I’ll tell you, somebody said to me before I went: ‘Well, it’s all guys. How are you going to feel about that?’
I said, ‘I have friends that are guys in high school.’
That’s not what it was like. It was really was a very different experience. It certainly taught me a lot.
Audience member: Let’s talk about you as a congresswoman. What challenges have you had and how have you overcome them, both personally and professionally?
MS: Personally, the challenge is always organization, right? Just getting everybody organized. I don’t think I have overcome that. I think that will always be a work in progress.
I am lucky right now, my oldest is an eighth grade. I’m a little nervous about high school next year and how we’re going to be set up to go into that. But somebody gave me the advice early on that, if you’re going to run for Congress, try to bring in your family as much as possible. Try to get them as engaged as possible. It’s always a tough line to walk, because I don’t want to make my kids miserable, right? So, I try to find that balance. I brought them down to Washington, they did two weeks of camp down there and I would try to engage them as much as possible and hopefully get a sense of that.
I would love to imbue in them as sense of responsibility to our country. And that doesn’t mean I anticipate they’ll ever run for anything, but they should get involved in other people’s campaigns. If they’re not ready, they should know who’s running for town council and knock on doors and just make sure they’re part of the democracy. That’s something I would like them to see me model.
As far as the professional challenges, I will say having the kind of life experience I’ve had has been helpful. I’ve been trained in the military to make tough decisions under tough circumstances.
So, to some extent, I think just to stay grounded and focused on what you have to do for your district and your country is important and not that hard, because you just keep that focus. I had been very lucky, too, because I entered Congress with one of the largest freshman classes that we’ve had since Watergate. And, as I said before, I get the impression that sometimes freshman entered Congress and you are kind of expected to sit quiet or listen. Maybe in five years you can put forward to bill or something.
That was not what I feel like you sent me to Congress to do. I think there’s a sense that our Congress isn’t functioning as well as we want it to. I don’t think we were all sent there to just sit quietly and wait for Congress to begin functioning. I think the freshman class was sent to Washington to help our country function better. In our district, I think most of us think that means good bipartisan legislation, reaching across the aisle, stopping some of the partisan battles that go on in Washington. So, luckily, I entered Congress with a lot of other people from districts like ours who very much want Congress to work well and to get good things done for their districts.
Not everybody cares as deeply as I do about the state and local tax deduction cap. That’s an issue I am relentlessly focused on, as is the rest of the delegation.
But there is broad concern across the country about health care and infrastructure. Those are things that there’s not a necessarily a consensus on how to move forward, but there is one in the caucus that we’ve got to address those critical issues. There are a lot of partners to work with on those issues as well.
MD: Is there anything else you want to leave us with?
MS: People in Washington, they may say I’m biased, but I don’t think I am. This district is fantastic. There are just so many people engaged with diverse arrays of opinions. I have people coming into my office all the time who don’t agree necessarily with a position I’ve taken, but they come in to talk to me about it. They don’t come in to berate me. Some of them are even coming in to talk to me, and they’ll probably never vote for me, but they want to take time because they care about the country and they care about where we’re headed. So, they take time to come talk to me about what their concerns are. And that just means so much, to see people really being thoughtful about where we’re headed and wanting to build those bridges and wanting to really have a discussion. Not to just have a sound bite or a talking point or just to vent, but really wanting to discuss the critical things we need to do in this country. And so I can’t tell you what a real honor it is to serve as district and the people in the 11th District.