Usually the first day of a new job means unpacking, meeting coworkers and trying to distinguish up from down.
But Ginger Schnitzer—former Plainsboro Township committeewoman, vice-chair of the zoning board and president of the Public Library Foundation—was greeted on her first day as executive director of the Guarini Institute for Government and Leadership at Saint Peter’s University with a snowstorm and a two-hour delay.
That same day, March 4, Guarini was scheduled to host a Model UN conference for 425 high school students.
A trial by fire, yes, but Schnitzer came to her new position well prepared and they managed to carry off the event.
The Guarini Institute for Government and Leadership was established in 1994 by Congressman Frank Guarini and aims to provide a non-partisan forum for discussion of key public policy issues.
The Institute sponsors lectures and programs throughout the academic year to promote critical thinking, debate and careers in public service.
The Institute also sponsors a number of programs with the United Nations such as the Visiting Ambassadors’ Colloquium, the High School Model UN, the Harvard Model UN and Non-Governmental Organization activities.
Also a place to encourage students to pursue careers in public service, “it can be a be bridge between classroom learning and real world politics and give students a chance to interact with local, state, national, and international leaders and promote civic engagement,” Schnitzer says.
Schnitzer was born in Brooklyn, moved to Twin Rivers at age 4, and at 10 ended up living in Princeton Collection in Plainsboro. As a politics junkie from a young age, she counts her longevity in Plainsboro via local politics.
“Peter Cantu was mayor when I was 10; I served with him in government for eight years, and he’s still mayor,” she says.
Schnitzer, who has studied politics academically, professionally, and on the ground in Plainsboro, was “bitten early” by the politics bug. Her story begins at age 2 or 3. Her bedtime was 7 p.m., but during tax season her father, who then did public accounting in Brooklyn, would wake her up when he got home—because otherwise he wouldn’t see her.
Often they would watch the New York Knicks play basketball at 10 p.m., and she “could recite the whole Knicks line-up,” which included Bill Bradley, one of her favorites.
Bradley returned to her life at age 10 when her parents told her they were going to see him. She thought she was going to an old timers game, but instead they took her to the VFW Hall where, to her surprise, Bradley was campaigning for the U.S. Senate.
“The next two weekends my mom and I delivered Bill Bradley literature on doorsteps,” Schnitzer says. “When Bradley won, I thought it was all because of me, and it made me interested in politics.”
Politics continued to be central for Schnitzer at Douglass College, not only via her political science major (she also minored in music), but as an undergraduate associate at the Eagleton Institute of Politics, where she developed strong relationships and mentors.
“I almost didn’t go to law school because I enjoyed the study of practical politics so much,” she says. But she did go to Villanova School of Law, because, she says, at age 10 she had told her parents and grandparents she was going to become a lawyer.
But she “never practiced a day.” She did like Villanova and loved the people, but, she says, “law school was not my favorite part of my education.” She finished in 1993 and got a master’s in government administration at University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Center of Government in 1994.
That year she became public affairs consultant, then legislative counsel at Nancy H. Becker Associates in Trenton, a general-contract lobbying firm that represents multiple clients. “That meant I lobbied for a lot of different interests,” she says, from mutual funds and banks to big corporations to associations.
But she felt something was missing. “I wanted to become expert in something; I wanted a chance to have one big behemoth client.”
So in April 1997 she moved to NJEA, where she could become an expert in educational policy. At the NJEA she learned the skill of organizing—a necessary tool for influencing public policy. One approach was “to get our members on their county party committees, and we built a program to do that.” Then they created “political leadership academies to train our members to run for public office.”
In 2000, while at the NJEA, Schnitzer was invited to run for the Plainsboro Township Committee and won. A member of the governing body until 2007, Schnitzer served with Cantu, who she describes as a “brilliant, thoughtful leader” and “a planner.”
Schnitzer also served as vice chair of the zoning board from 1996 to 2000, library trustee from 2000 to 2008, and president of the library foundation from 2008 to 2010.
Looking back over her career thus far, Schnitzer discerns a definite path that led her to the Guarini Institute.
At Nancy Becker, where she got her start, she was the “back-of-the-house person” who did research and wrote amendments and policy memos. Schnitzer says, “I used to think that I could know everything I needed to know if I read every document carefully and researched all citations; then I would know how to make a bill of law.” And when she started to lobby, she says, “I thought I could really impact public policy if I built relationships.”
At NJEA she learned that “to make a difference, it is the people that spend their time spreading the message [who do that].” And she learned how to organize this human energy.
At the victory party following her election to the township committee, she remembers standing on a staircase preparing to make her victory speech. “I was looking at the sea of people gathered, and I could see that these are the people who wrote a $25 check for my campaign, went to the law office to make phone calls in phone banks, put signs on lawns, and put our literature on their neighbors’ doorsteps.”
At that moment she realized that Bill Bradley was not just a “nice, cool, generous guy,” but he was telling her the truth that day on the escalator: “In this country the only way we elect anyone to anything—dogcatcher, school board member, or president of the United States—is when people take the time to do those little, individual actions. It’s the only way we change public policy.”
Schnitzer has been married for 16 years to Jay Schnitzer. Their daughter Miki was born in August 2007, close to the time that she became director of government relations at NJEA. When she had used up her 11 weeks of maternity leave, Jay quit his job as a project engineer for Johnson Controls in Edison to become a stay-at-home dad.
Now that Miki is a sixth grader at Thomas Grover Middle School, he works three days a week as a baker at Griggstown Farm, making breads, cookies and turnovers. He also owns Abba Jay’s Bakery, where he bakes challah and cookies, and Passover desserts. Miki currently plans to be a constitutional lawyer, and she is very passionate about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
After 25 years of research, relationship-building, organizing, making policy in her own town, and “putting people you believe in on the ballot,” Schnitzer has found her way to the logical next step, the Guarini Institute. Her mentor and professor at the Eagleton Institute, Dr. Alan Rosenthal, used to tell her that “democracy was messy and human,” and she now realizes that “if you really want to impact public policy, you go prepare humans to do the work.”
Schnitzer’s father served as controller for different companies in Manhattan’s garment district as well as a textile company in Dunellen. He ended his career as the chief financial officer for an executive search and professional coaching firm. Her mother, an artist by training, worked for Getty Personnel for 11 years, sold recycling services, and worked for Mercer ARC, encouraging people to use its workshop.