On March 7, 2023, Stephanie Martinez, announced on her Instagram page that she would run for the vacant 8th District seat on the Hudson County Board of County Commissioners.
Martinez, 23, is the youngest candidate to run for the 8th District seat in county history and is going up against Robert J. Baselice, the current seat holder.
Born in Jersey City and raised in North Bergen, Martinez grew up in an immigrant, working-class family with three older brothers. Both her parents, now separated, met in a t-shirt factory in Brooklyn where they worked for less than minimum wage. They were exposed to dangerous chemicals and environments daily with no resources to demand safer conditions.
Living in downtown North Bergen also meant growing up with Union City and Jersey City kids in school.
From an early age, she learned the disparity in benefits kids could receive, such as food assistance and education programs. Despite living so close to one another, the borders between her and her friend’s neighborhoods often made a huge difference in their upbringing.
An above-average student, Martinez had a creative side throughout her school years, joining the art club and playing the flute in the chorus band in elementary school. In high school, she played soccer, and would often bike from 11th Street in North Bergen to Braddock Park in her free time.
“It was tiring,” she told Slice of Culture. “But you see more of your neighborhood when you’re on a bike, like you get to really see … the whole county and how the streets are and it’s very eye-opening.”
Safe streets are a major factor in Martinez’s campaign.
Being a part of Bike North Bergen and Hudson Complete Streets, Martinez has advocated for not just safer routes for bikers, but also more traffic safety for pedestrians and more alternatives for transportation in the county.
In November 2022, local mayors as well as commissioners Anthony Vainieri and Caridad Rodriguez, announced the cancellation of a previously agreed upon redesign of Boulevard East that would include protected bike lanes with parallel parking, citing concerns with the elimination of parking spaces. In its place was a plan that would not only not include bike lanes but implement angled parking.
Martinez noted this as an example of the county’s lack of care on the subject and that Boulevard East is a dangerous area for pedestrians already.
“Boulevard East is considered a high crash corridor. When you back out, there are buses and cyclists and you have limited visibility. It’s not safe.”
She added, “So [we] not only advocate for cyclists but advocate for safe streets for everyone because everyone uses the roads. Pedestrians, people on bikes, scooters or wheelchairs. It’s not just cyclists that oppose this plan. So when the county commissioners all voted yes to the angled parking. That’s when I realized that the people currently in office are not representing us everyday people.”
Along with traffic safety, affordability is another major ticket on her platform. For Martinez, it is her priority.
“It breaks my heart that when I would reach out to old elementary school friends, and them telling me they don’t live in [North] Bergen anymore,” she said.
“We are seeing a constant pattern of these luxury apartments coming in, and the local officials that are putting these plans through are not considering the people that have lived here and made a home here.”
According to Zumper, the average rent price for a 1-bedroom apartment in North Bergen is $2,448 a month. In November 2020, the last time former 8th District Commissioner Anthony Vainieri Jr. and the rest of the Board were reelected, the average was $2,040.
The current rent price in North Bergen is also nearly 44 percent higher than the national average.
“[We] should be focusing on the people that are already here. And a lot of the times you would hear ‘Oh, just go somewhere else’. … It’s not that simple,” she said. “[People] made a community here, through their church, through their school, through organizations, or just living here, in general, their whole life.”
Another top priority for Martinez stems from her extensive track record in environmental work as well.
She also won the NJM Sustanability Award for her environmental work during her time as an intern at the PSEG Institute for Sustanibility Studies where she worked on the City of Newark’s “sustainability tracking programs focusing on CDP-ICLEI and LEED for cities and communities.”
Growing up, she also had a strong affinity for animals, watching Discovery Channel documentaries and regularly going out of her way to save abandoned cats and injured birds.
“I felt a connection with my surrounding environment,” she said. “But despite that, growing up, I did not really have that much greenery, or open space in my downtown area, which is crazy.”
Studying biology at Saint Peter’s University, she conducted research analyzing endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which are harmful chemicals that impact your hormonal system and can cause major, long term health issues like diabetes, obesity, neurological and learning disabilites and cancer. This research revealed some troubling information for her that caused her to utilize her field to better help marginalized communities.
“BPA (bisphenol A) is an EDC and it can be found in plastic linings of canned goods.”
She recalled how growing up, her and her family would often get canned goods from food distributions. She found that she, her community and other marginalized communities were and are still exposed to these dangerous chemicals often.
“It goes back to environmental racism, she said. “And we need more of this type of research to hold corporations accountable and to hold our elected officials accountable.”
One of her inspirations for her activism comes from Dolores Huerta, a notable American labor, environmental and civil rights activist who co-founded the United Farmworkers Association (now the United Farm Workers) with Cesar Chavez.
She noted how Huerta’s activism surrounding the exposure to harmful pesticides and chemicals farmers faced, and how that related to her own parents being exposed to dangerous fumes from the factory they used to work and chemicals they would ingest in the food they eat.
Martinez had been contemplating running for some time. She recalled taking part in one of North Bergen’s local public meetings and asking Mayor Nick Sacco on what the town is doing to prevent climate change catastrophes.
After receiving a response she felt was unsatisfactory, she was finally pushed to run for the 8th District seat after she attended the county meeting where the Board had scrapped their original plans for the Boulevard East redesign.
Her campaign has mostly consisted of door-knocking, canvassing and taking part in various community events such as the Union City Community Garden.
She stated that the feedback she has received has been positive, and that the folks she has spoken to were pleasantly surprised by her youth.
When asked whether she had experienced any doubt from people because of her age or lack of political experience, she replied she had not encountered that kind of skeptiscism.
But even so, she sought to remind residents of the importance of this election, and that even if they don’t have major issues with the current administration, things can still be better.
“You have choices,” she said. “Would you stay compliant this kind of machine-based government? A lot of the time there would not be another option [on the ballot] and people would just see their names and go ‘I know them’.”
Martinez explained that ultimately at the root of her campaign is the desire to be the person that those in her community can feel like they can understand and sympathize with.
She reflected on those times attending public meetings and feeling discouraged by how the representatives of the town and county she called home don’t entirely reflect the community she lives alongside.
“When I would go to [public meetings] and go to the podium to say my concerns, I would feel intimidated by how a majority of my town’s board of commissioners are all old white men,” she said.
“When I would speak, I would find myself trying to hold myself back on certain things, because I’m like, ‘they don’t look like me.’ So why would they understand my situation or my concerns?”
She hopes that with her on the board, that other members of her community can feel like they don’t have to hold back. And that they have a voice representing them on the board in way that she felt she never had.
Speaking to voters, she said, “A lot of times we’re not being taken seriously. It should not be that way. I want to make you feel comfortable, not intimidated. I want to work with you.”
She said that in the end, it is going to take “imaginative” minds and radical ideas to move the community forward.
“We can’t stick to the same people that created these problems.”
With the primary election taking place on Tuesday, June 6, Martinez shared her final thoughts on the road ahead.
“Whatever the outcome is after June 6, I’m very grateful for the support and experience our campaign brought to everyday people. At the end of the day, I’m glad I was able to start a movement in my town and continue to keep that hope for change in Hudson County!”
Robert J. Baselice was unable to be reached for an interview.
To find your your local polling place, click on the link here.
For a guide on in-person early voting, click the link here.
The deadline for Post Office receipt and in-person submission of mail-in ballots at authorized drop boxes is June 6.