We’re going to modify the popular game of “Two Truths and a Lie.”
Holly Schepisi’s life has been that interesting and eventful.
So, we present: Five Truths and a Lie — and ask you to guess which of the following is not a true statement about the life of Schepisi, the state senator representing parts of Bergen and Passaic counties and a partner at O’Toole Scrivo in Cedar Grove:
- She went trick or treating at President Richard Nixon’s house, had dinner with numerous global figures (including Henry Kissinger and Prince Edward) and met Salman Rushdie while working in the British Parliament — all before she was 25;
- She was a member of the Screen Actors Guild, has appeared in a Wendy’s commercial, had a recurring role as an extra on “Spin City” and has a movie producer credit on her IMDB page;
- She spent many of the summers of her childhood on the island of St. Maarten in the Caribbean — and a summer on a leadership program in Europe, which took her to both the NATO headquarters and East Germany;
- She seemingly has worked every arduous job imaginable in the food/restaurant industry, from shrimp deveiner (you read that right) to meat slicer to short-order cook to restaurant manager;
- She gave up a career as a bigshot Manhattan lawyer when she learned her first born would require surgery and extended medical care — then had a serious medical issue of her own, when she was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm in 2015 (she’s fully recovered after surgery);
- She is dull and boring — without a single interesting story to tell.
Is it obvious?
Schepisi’s life has been filled with so many I-can’t-believe-you-did-that moments that even those closest to her can’t keep up.
“I have friends who I have known since I was 13: We’ll be together, telling stories, and every once in a while, they’ll say: ‘How did I not know that about you?’” she said.
Know this, too: Schepisi, who just turned 51, isn’t slowing down.
She joined O’Toole Scrivo last summer and already is having great impact at the firm. The same can be said for the state Senate, which the Republican joined in 2021 after the passing of long-serving Sen. Gerald Cardinale — and after she served nearly 10 years in the Assembly.
“I can tell you, I’m one of the more vocal people down there, as I was in the Assembly,” she said. “The way I view it is this: I’m not giving up time away from my family and friends to go down there and be silent.
“But, there’s a difference between fighting on policy and speaking up on policy that you disagree with while still maintaining valuable relationships and friendships with people on the other side of the aisle, even if you do disagree on policy.”
Everyone can agree on this: Schepisi has plenty of interesting things to say and stories to tell. That’s why she was selected to be part of the annual Interview Issue at ROI-NJ. Here’s a look at the conversation, edited for space and clarity.
ROI-NJ: Let’s start with those amazing moments early in your life. You were a student at Catholic University and an intern for New Jersey’s U.S. Rep. Marge Roukema and … well, we’ll let you take it from here.
Holly Schepisi: I worked on Capitol Hill for Congresswoman Roukema at an early age. I was only 17. I worked on and off for her throughout college, and I interned at the United Nations and the Organization of American States.
I also did a leadership program in Europe when I was in high school. We met with members of the British Parliament, we were at SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) and NATO headquarters — and even went to East Berlin before the wall came down.
I was always intrigued by international politics. So, when I had an opportunity to intern for the British Parliament, working for Tony Banks, a member of the Labour Party, I took it.
ROI: Tell us about that?
HS: Tony was an epic character. He was a huge animal rights activist. He was notorious for having people chain themselves to 10 Downing Street to protest whaling. And he also was a very open proponent of the abolition of the monarchy. My job was to entertain VIPs at the private parliamentary bar on the Thames. It was there that I got to meet Salman Rushdie, when the fatwa was put on his head, and he came to the British Parliament seeking assistance.
ROI: It sounds as if there should be a movie about your life. Of course, you could handle that, too, having been a producer on the movie ‘100 Feet,’ a mystery/horror/thriller that came out in 2008 — which was after you did the commercial and your background roles. Talk about that period of your life?
HS: I had just graduated from Catholic University (in the spring of 1993) with degrees in international politics and psychology, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I grew up. So, I took that summer off, got a house down in Manasquan with a bunch of friends and a job as a short order cook at a truck stop — and I decided I wanted to pursue an acting career, so I started taking acting courses.
My family owned a bar-restaurant at the time, and I kind of got suckered into becoming the manager. My dad was less than pleased with me that I had two college degrees and was making less money managing the family restaurant than our dishwasher. He kept pressuring me to go to law school. So, to appease him, I ended up applying to only one law school, Fordham, because it was right in Lincoln Center — and I figured I could do acting and law at the same time.
While I was going to law school and doing acting classes, I started interning for a New York Supreme Court judge, and befriended the judge whose chambers were next door, Judge Edwin Torres, who had written ‘Carlito’s Way.’ We became very good friends, and he would bring me to all of the movie premieres in New York. I wound up meeting all of these really interesting people while pursuing my acting career. I ultimately got a featured role on a Wendy’s commercial that enabled me to get my Screen Actors Guild card and started getting some ‘featured extra’ work.
ROI: Have to ask, any celebrity moments — good or bad — that you want to share?
HS: Two of the nicest people I ever had lunch with were Dennis Franz from ‘NYPD Blue’ and Michael J. Fox, when he was on ‘Spin City.’
ROI: Have to ask, question two: Why did you stop pursuing the acting career?
HS: When I graduated law school (in 1997), it was a really fascinating and interesting time. I was in my mid-20s, living in Manhattan and having all of these various opportunities. I had an offer to go to Court TV, where I also was working. And, because I had worked for the Supreme Court judges, I had offers to work as a prosecutor in the district attorney’s offices in many of the boroughs. Then, last minute, I change pathways and went into corporate law in Manhattan (at Dickstein Shapiro and then Swidler Berlin Shereff Friedman). I spent the next seven years of my life working on multibillion-dollar deals, working 80-90 hours a week.
ROI: For someone who seemingly had spent their entire life on a treadmill, you soon found out life can come at you even faster. Talk about that?
HS: When I was pregnant with my daughter (now a sophomore in college), I found out that she was going to need surgery as a newborn. It was one of those life moments where you had to make a choice between your child and your career. And, so, I walked out the door when she was only a couple of months old, went from handling some of the most complex corporate matters imaginable to hanging up the shingle in my house with a sick baby in my arms, trying to figure out what I was going to do, having never practiced in New Jersey.
All of a sudden, it was 11 years later, and I was still working with the shingle outside of my house, when I was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm. I had to have major surgery; I had something called a craniotomy. And I wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen next.
ROI: The surgery was a success; tell us your next steps — and how you got to O’Toole Scrivo?
HS: After the aneurysm, I joined a local firm (Huntington Bailey) as of counsel. I really loved my time there, but I realized, with what I do with politics, as well as law, I needed a place with more resources. I’ve known Kevin (O’Toole) and Tom (Scrivo) for quite a while. We started talking about this time last year, when I indicated I was interested in expanding my practice. I had a lot of clients and goodwill that I had built up over the years, but I needed the infrastructure, needed associates and needed the ability to really grow. They wanted to grow their corporate practice at the firm, because a lot of the practice here has been historically litigation-driven, so it was just a great fit.
I came on board last summer and I’m now overseeing and building out the entire Corporate Department, doing a lot of acquisition work on cross-collateralizing existing clients and being able to negotiate very complex operating agreements, acquisition agreements and land-use agreements.
ROI: As a former state senator and the chair of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, O’Toole certainly understands your need to both work for the firm and the Legislature. But it still comes down to you balancing the roles while also finding time for your family. Talk about your work-life balance?
HS: It’s difficult. Most of my days begin at 7 a.m. and most of my evenings end anywhere from 11 p.m. to 1 o’clock in the morning. But, when I have late-night meetings for work, I try to leave a little bit earlier, so I can go home, have dinner with the family, let them know that I still exist.
One of the things I’ve learned over time is that I don’t need somebody’s free drink or dinner. People always tell me that they spotted me at an event and then turned around 30 seconds later and found that I had vanished. I’ve learned how to get in and out of functions and do what you need to do in my political life, but I also multitask. I now have a driver when I go down to Trenton, so I can work in the car the entire way down and the entire way back.
ROI: That’s a good thing, because there’s plenty of work to be done. Talk about small business and education, which have been big issues for you?
HS: We have to stop being No. 50 out of 50 states for our business communities. And it’s not just large businesses; 60% to 65% of the revenue in the state comes from our small businesses. One of the biggest things that we hear from people as to why they’re leaving the state is because of the cost of living with property taxes and mortgages. It reaches a point where a lot of people are having to choose between retirement and working. Even once they’ve paid off their mortgages, they find paying property taxes can be the equivalent of a mortgage payment.
For almost all of our suburban communities, those significant property tax numbers are driven by an unfair school-funding formula. I would never want to penalize or harm an underperforming school district, but we also have to be pragmatic as to creating a different mechanism for funding our schools in the state so that people can stay here — and so our children can come back and can afford to do so. I think that’s one of the most overlooked issues; people really don’t understand the magnitude of it.
As for education, our test scores have plunged so significantly as a result of the shutdowns. And the children who are being impacted the most include those from low-income households and children who are Black and Hispanic. This is going to impact us for generations to come. We need to get all hands on deck to try to remedy this massive learning loss while we still can.
ROI: Of course, doing anything in Trenton as a Republican involves working with Democrats, who have long controlled the Legislature. How do you do that?
HS: It’s all about maintaining relationships and friendships with people on the other side of the aisle. I don’t think people realize how important it is to be able to do that, because I would be wholly ineffective for the people I represent if I didn’t have relationships where I can move legislation forward and get things done for the municipalities I represent. You have to have those relationships in order to have a meaningful impact in the minority.
For me, it goes back to all those jobs and internships I had growing up. Those jobs taught me how to interact with every type of person. They gave me a foundation for what I do today.
And they gave Schepisi a seemingly unlimited number of stories to tell along the way. That’s no lie.
Five fun questions
What is the most notable job you had in high school?
I pretty much had every job known to man in high school. I was a shrimp deveiner girl, a deli counter meat slicer girl and a short order cook. Those jobs taught me the valuable lesson of hard work. I’ve always told my children that, notwithstanding the fact that I have my law degree, if something ever went sideways in my life, I could roll up my sleeves and pretty much do any job that was out there. I’ve always kept that in the back of my mind, because you’re never quite sure what life is going to throw your way.
What skill do you use on your kids that you learn at work — or use at work that you learn from being a parent?
I think the best business technique I use on my kids is teaching them that it’s acceptable to fail at something or lose a game. It’s really how you handle that failure or loss and persevere through it. That’s one of the most important components of life and business — navigating through tough stuff. Life is very difficult and challenging, and you never know when something unexpected is going to happen. But resiliency and perseverance are two of the most important life skills that anyone can have.
What person, dead or alive, real or created, famous or infamous, would you want to have dinner with?
I’ve been very fortunate to dine with and meet so many famous people over the years, including most of the presidents who have served during my life. But, if I had to pick someone I’ve never had dinner with, it would probably be Queen Elizabeth, who just passed. I’ve been binge-watching ‘The Crown’ over the past several months. And, as a young woman, I worked for the British Parliament. I had had the opportunity to meet two of her sons when I was younger, but I never had the opportunity to sit with her. I just think it would be really fascinating to hear her experiences and to get her take on all of the modern historical figures that she had a direct opportunity to be with and navigate history with.
The non-famous person I would love to have dinner with would be my grandparents. My grandfather was taken out of school at the age of 12 — my son’s age now — to help support his family. His parents spoke little to no English and raised five children in a two-bedroom home. We never really spoke about his experiences and his history when I was growing up. And, now that I’m older, I would love the opportunity to really delve into that.
If you could be New Jersey business czar for the day, what would you do to help the state?
I would immediately roll back pretty much every initiative that has been implemented over the past decade. And I would take billboard space in every surrounding state, promoting the fact that we had rolled back our corporate tax and say that New Jersey is finally open for business and to come on over.
What is your favorite food? It can be a meal or a snack — or even a restaurant.
It’s steak tartare and escargot, because I love French food. As a child, I partially grew up on the island of St. Maarten, where we had a second home. I would be on the island for up to two to three months per year. I grew up eating all these unusual foods. So, those foods remind me of my childhood and remind me of the time that we had on the island, growing up in a different way.