Munoz Lays Out Agenda for First Term of Her Own
Assemblywoman mixes continuing her late husband's legacy with her agenda.
Going to sleep on March 29, Nancy Munoz had no reason to believe the coming week would be any different from past weeks. But the mother of five woke up in the middle of the night with her husband, Assemblyman Eric Munoz (R-Summit), complaining of chest pains. Getting him to the hospital, like she did after his 2004 heart attack, she thought everything would work out... until he died on the operating table.
Munoz was more than a sudden widow; she found herself thrust into a Republican political realm as party leaders quickly looked to fill his seat, with both an interim appointee and a candidate for a full term. Time was running out, a new name needed to be placed on the ballot within the week. Spared from many of the internal discussions, with various names being mentioned and Munoz being called the potential kingmaker, she thought back to a conversation she had with her husband two years before.
Following his heart attack, Mrs. Munoz, who holds a master's in nursing, had been studying for her school nurse certificate in case she needed it. One night, her husband was telling her of a case he had handled in his job as a trauma surgeon that was a sudden death and he told her that he wanted her to run for his Assembly seat if he suddenly passed away. She was interested in the idea, but never thought of it, considering it an idea that would never come about. Suddenly, in the first days of April, while planning her husband's funeral and caring for their children, the conversation came back to her.
"I just knew," Munoz said of why she chose to run for the seat. "I knew I had to take care of my family. I wanted to continue Eric's work. Who better to fill Eric Munoz' seat than the person who knew him best of all?"
Quickly, Munoz found herself on the ballot for a full term and then the victor at a special party convention to fill the seat through January. She also found herself being criticized for being selected because she was his widow—in fact Munoz is the first widow in New Jersey history to directly succeed her husband in the State Legislature; all others had succeeded their husbands' successors. Others said she wasn't qualified since she was a housewife and community volunteer.
Munoz quickly countered any thoughts that she wasn't qualified for the job. She noted that she has worked as a registered nurse, was an active community volunteer, had been a PTA president at the elementary, middle and high school level, had frequently represented her husband at events district wide and discussed many state issues with her husband.
"I had always gone to events for Eric," she said, noting that her husband had commitments as a trauma surgeon at University Hospital in Newark, as a professor at UMDNJ and as a medical consultant for attorneys. "Jon and Tom felt I was a member of the team."
In the June primary, Munoz easily dispatched her two opponents and in November captured a full two-year term in her own right, easily defeating her little-known Democratic opponents.
Since taking the oath of office, Munoz has become something of a whirlwind in the district, frequently attending events in the towns in the four county-district. At one point she was seen at more Westfield events than her district colleagues, Assemblyman Jon Bramnick and Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., who both live in Westfield.
She says she is attending the events in order to get to know the district and to help break out of being typecast as a widow.
"I want people to understand that I am not just the widow filling the seat," she said. "I am very committed to this job."
In Trenton, Munoz has taken her late husband's seats on the health and senior services committee and the human services committee. She has also taken up sponsorship of the bills he had been sponsoring at the time of his death. She speaks passionately about wanting to continue her husband's work in protecting the underprivileged.
Coming into the Legislature in the run-up to the adoption of the state budget, Munoz acknowledges the learning curve was steep, but said she believes she is mastering the many issues facing the state, noting that Kean and Bramnick have helped bring her up to speed. She says that her status as the first widow to succeed her husband wasn't a hindrance in the Assembly, as her colleagues were welcoming to her when she started. There are currently two other widows serving in the Legislature, Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker (D-Newark), who succeeded the two women who came after her husband, and State Sen. Sandra Bolden Cunningham (D-Jersey City), who succeeded her husband's successor. The concept of widows succeeding their husbands is common in American politics, with many female U.S. senators coming to office in that way, along with the nation's first female governor, former Wyoming Gov. Nellie Tayloe Ross.
Munoz said she believes she is starting to come into her own in the Assembly and develop more of her own agenda, in addition to continuing some of her husband's passions.
"I am more than halfway into my own right," she said. "I think I need to accomplish things in my own right. It's pretty clear that I am over the crest of that hill and am on the other side. I can't just be an extension of Eric. Over the next two years it will be more me."
Looking at her agenda for her first full term, Munoz said she wants to remain on the health committee, due to her expertise and perspective as a nurse. While she has found the human services committee interesting, she has an interest in moving over to the military and veterans affairs committee in the new term. Munoz noted that her parents were both World War II veterans and she would like to work on veterans issues. The committee also oversees the work of the state's National Guard.
Munoz has set four key goals for her own legislative agenda looking forward over the next two years, which she says is a mix of her own ideas and legislation first pushed by her husband. One key goal is to bring the Jessica Lunsford Act to passage. The bill is designed after a Florida law and would require mandatory minimum sentences for repeat sex offenders against children and would require convicted sex offenders who committed the crime against a child to wear a GPS tracking unit at all times. The bill was originally proposed by Munoz' husband and Munoz wants to see it passed in the coming two years.
Munoz believes the bill stands a good chance to see passage this year. She noted that it has the sponsorship of over half of the Assembly, including that of Assembly Speaker-elect Sheila Oliver (D-Essex County). A main opponent to the bill this year was Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D-Camden County) who has not posted the bill for a vote in the full Assembly.
Outside of the Jessica Lunsford bill, Munoz wants to address health care reform on the state level. In this area, she said she wants to break down barriers to health insurance, particularly for people in their 20s, who may be unemployed or working in a freelance industry without employer-guaranteed health coverage. She would like to see people allowed to buy insurance policies without certain mandates in the coverage in order to make the insurance plan more affordable and accessible. This would include allowing more people to buy into a pool of policies which she believes will reduce costs. Munoz notes that many of her thoughts on health care come from her own children lacking health coverage.
In addition, Munoz said she wants to have an impact on the nursing profession. This includes pushing the idea of having nurses receive a bachelor's degree within 10 years of become a registered nurse through a nursing school or associate degree program and looking to put more advanced practitioner nurses into place statewide.
"We have a nursing shortage in this state and country and we need to educate them," she said.
Munoz said she is looking forward to working with Gov.-Elect Chris Christie over the next two years on a variety of issues, including the state's fiscal situation and promoting shared services. In the fiscal arena, Munoz noted she wants the state to stop spending more than it brings in revenue-wise and look to make cuts to the budget, even if it means making layoffs. One area she wants to address is looking at duplicative functions and jobs in state government. She also supports Kean's call for a more transparent state budget and checkbook, which would include posting the budget online.
"We need to do what we can do to get this state back," she said. "To be one of the nine states in the country to be on the brink of fiscal ruin is horrible."
Munoz said she hears from her friends and neighbors about the state's high property taxes on a regular basis and she wants to look at shared services as a way to reduce the state's many layers of government. She noted that she keeps seeing more people move away from Summit after their children graduate from high school seeking lower property taxes in Pennsylvania and the Carolinas. In one case she mentioned a Summit family who moved to South Carolina, into the same community as seven other former Summit families, who came together to recreate their old community in the South. She notes that she has asked her mother to relocate from Connecticut to New Jersey and she declined because of the tax rate in the Garden State. Munoz also worries that she or her children may one day have to leave New Jersey because of taxes.
"I want to stay here and I want my children here," Munoz said. "It's about keeping the family unit intact. My children don't want me to leave."
Fully aware of the state's home rule tradition and that getting rid of home rule is the third rail of New Jersey politics, Munoz said she wants to find ways to promote shared services. She would like towns and counties to voluntarily discuss ways to share services in various areas. One concept she cited was the Westfield Regional Health Department, which serves eight Union County towns, including Westfield, Summit and Springfield. She also noted the partnership Summit has in place with New Providence and Millburn for certain services. Munoz, in a theme common to many Summit politicians, noted there is a need to address the services delivered by county government.
Noting that she is a strong supporter of the public schools and proud of her work as a PTA president, she said she also wants to address a key area of public school financing, the area of teacher pensions. She said she would like to work with Christie on the possibility of converting public school teacher pensions to being similar to private sector pension plans with a higher employee contribution. This would also apply to other public sector employees.
While Munoz believes she has been able to overcome the hump between being the widow succeeding her husband and being a legislator in her own right, some still question whether she should be in the seat in the first place. There are occasional whispers questioning if the seat should have been passed to her as the widow and not to one of the many county Republicans salivating over the prospect of one day serving in the Legislature—the only route of advancement for a Union County Republican these days. Others raise the same questions of whether a housewife can be an assemblywoman.
Munoz bristles at the thought of anyone calling her "just a housewife," a theme used by her opponents in June and those who continue to question her status in the Legislature.
"I dare them to be just a housewife," she said. "I ran a small business. My husband was a trauma surgeon, a professor, an assemblyman, a medical reviewer, a husband and a father. I ran a house with seven people, did a budget, managed to be at all of my childrens' events and be a presence in my husband's life. It is a difficult job."
She said that she continues to carry her husband's legacy close to her and uses his memory to help guide her work in the Legislature.
"I felt I could continue his work," she said. "He worked hard for the most vulnerable people in the district."
Editor's Note: This the first of a three part series profiling Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz.