LAKEWOOD – That Tuesday afternoon (Dec. 11) was sunny, and not Vermont cold. Virginia Haines had visited family up in the Green Mountain State for Thanksgiving, where the mercury didn’t escape the teens throughout the extended weekend. That afternoon, the shade of the towering array of trees – the park white pine, Norway spruces, hemlock, among others – surrounding the Ocean County Police Academy keep out the promised 43 degrees, but she’ll take this near heat wave over that Vermont cold.
“Ocean County has everything. I don’t see why I would want to leave. There are the woods; the western part was very rural. Of course, I grew up in Lakewood, but from two years old I was in Ocean County Park, so, this was my playground,” Haines said. Outside, she pointed to the second-story at the back of the academy: a living room, bedroom, the home she, her siblings and parents had occupied when it was a family home. She pointed to a tree across the lawn – the tallest in a cluster of tall trees – that she remembered climbing up as a very young girl, but couldn’t climb down. Her father had to recruit some park employees to retrieve her. “But then you have the ocean. You have everything here in Ocean County. To me, it was the perfect place to grow up.”
Ocean County Park was part of the vacation estate of John D. Rockefeller. In the early 1940s, the family gifted the estate to the county, which the Ocean County Freeholders then used to establish the county’s first park. The police academy was established in 1960.
Haines’ father came back from the war and started working for the county park in 1945. The house had three apartments, one downstairs and two upstairs. The family settled there in 1948, before building a home next to Haines’ grandparents on the western side of Lakewood, on a plot owned by her great-grandfather, in 1957, four miles outside town.
Inside the park though, it was a mile from her front door to the gate at Ocean Avenue, a familiar path she walked to catch the bus. Haines went to Ella G. Clark School, Lakewood Junior High and Lakewood High School, when Jackson, Manchester and Lakehurst students were still bussed in. Her parents wanted her to focus on her studies; she was a cheerleader and babysat for some spending money. Her first job after graduating was working for the Ocean County Health Department.
Haines settled in Toms River, where she’s lived for nearly 40 years.
“There are so many people who have been mentors in my life,” she said, but named her mother as her strongest influence. “She, and my father, the things they instilled in us…They were very active in the community. They really cared, and my mother, she was a nurse, but at one point she was also welfare director in Lakewood. She would not just only go to the office, and did what she had to do for them, she would drive, she would find a job for someone. She would drive them to that job. If they called her out at 2 o’clock in the morning, she was there. She always gave 110 percent. And that’s where I think I learned a lot from.”
And it was her mother and father that got her started in politics. Active in the local Republican party, they would stump for candidates during election seasons. Haines’ first campaign was for Joseph Buckelew, who would later be so instrumental in her own political career, and George Buckwald, running for township committee. She was a young teen then and worked on different campaigns in her teens and 20s, stuffing and labeling envelopes, running phone banks, and polling voters.
“It was not a hard decision at all,” Buckelew said in a phone interview Dec. 14. He was the Ocean County Republican Chairman when Haines approached him about running for a seat in the 10th Legislative District. He immediately supported her bid. “I was county chairman at that time, and had been encouraging women to be more involved in the Republican organization. Hazel Gluck was a protégé of mine as well… [Gluck was the first female freeholder director, who served in 1978.] The first ingredient to having a good politician is intelligence. Ginny is intelligent. The second is common sense, and she had common sense. The third, and probably most important, is honesty, and she is honest as the day is long. She filled all those criteria.”
But before she embarked on her own career in politics, she worked for newly elected Freeholder John C. Bartlett Jr. for six years, starting in 1980, and then worked in then-Assemblyman Robert Singer’s legislative office for one year. She was then selected to serve as Clerk of the Assembly.
“I learned so much listening to both sides of the aisle, the Republicans and the Democrats going back and forth on so much legislation,” Haines said. “I might have gone in that day with an opinion on a particular bill – I didn’t vote, I was Clerk of the Assembly – and then I would realize, and then you would hear another viewpoint and say, ‘They are really making sense.’”
Republican control of the Assembly was short lived, and she was no longer clerk. About a year later, the legislative districts had changed, and it was then Haines approached Buckelew about running.
“I realized, it’s not so much that you needed to have a degree when being a legislator, it’s just that as long as you showed you were honest with the people when you spoke with them, you showed an interest and that you cared, and that you really listen to what they said and you wanted to do what was going to be best for your legislative district and, of course, ultimately, always the State of New Jersey, I felt I could do the job,” Haines said.
Buckelew supported her nod. Virginia Haines’ career in politics began in August 1990.
She teamed with David Wolfe and Andrew Ciesla, and was only the fifth woman from Ocean County at that time to be elected to the Assembly.
“And I’m very proud to say, for that first time running, I was top vote-getter,” Haines said. “It was Ciesla, Wolfe & Haines, and I was top vote-getter.”
The self-described “moderate Republican’s” list of personal and political accomplishments is long. She served as Executive Director of the New Jersey Lottery for eight years. On the Toms River committee to fill a vacancy. As the National Republican Committeewoman – New Jersey. As co-chair of the Republican National Committee Northeast Region. As delegate for the Republican National Convention. As chair of the Ocean County College Foundation Board. With the Jersey Shore Council of Boy Scouts, the Monmouth/Ocean Foodbank, the Ocean County Heart Association, the United Way, the Local Advisory Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse of Ocean County. As a member of the Rotary Club of Toms River, the Toms River Student Loan Fund Board and the Advisory Council for Big Brothers/Big Sisters.
Ocean County Freeholder since Jan. 27, 2016, filling the vacancy left by James F. Lacey.
And now she can add Freeholder Director, the first woman in 40 years to hold that position.
It’s been the tradition of Ocean County’s freeholders to rotate the directorship annually, outgoing Freeholder Director Gerry P. Little said in a phone call Dec. 14.
“I’ve chatted with everyone [on the Freeholder Board] individually, and it’s a consensus that we think Freeholder Haines is very enthusiastic and she’s talented and she has certainly earned the gavel and so we’re going to be thrilled to ask her take that responsibility next year,” Little said. “We’re delighted, and we know she’ll do a good job.”
Little will hand off that gavel to Haines at the Board’s reorganization meeting Jan. 2.
“I know one of the things, and I’m sure there will be others, but one of the things is the opioid epidemic,” Haines responded when asked what her priorities were for 2019. She praised both former prosecutor Joseph Coronato for his programs and new prosecutor Bradley Billhimer’s commitment to not only continue that work, but expand on it. For instance, the county’s Blue HART program allows addicts to reach out to local police departments to get into participating treatment facilities.
“I know, to me, the one thing we do need are more treatment centers,” Haines said. “There’s a lot of support out there, there are many agencies that we have that people can go to for counseling. But I feel we need to do what we can for the treatment because it used to be 28 days. I understand that in some areas, you’re only going to get 14 days. If someone has an addiction, I don’t know how 14 days is going to do anything to help that individual. I’m hoping to work with my fellow freeholders on solutions to whatever we can possibly do to work with other agencies to find out what is needed, what is the best solution.”
Gluck winters in Florida but maintains a home in Ocean County. Haines hasn’t had a chance to speak with her yet.
“She was a trailblazer in a lot of ways, besides being the first female Freeholder Director,” Haines said about Gluck. In total, there have been only six women from Ocean County who have gone to the state legislature. And while Haines said it should be about the character, and not sex, of a person that matters, women do have so much to offer in politics. “Woman have just as much ability to be an elected official. They have just as much to give in that position as anybody, as any man can. Unfortunately, the way society has been through the years, it’s still in a sense a man’s world. It is changing, I think, with the younger generation.”
Haines never thought she’d run for office. She loved working on campaigns. But working as Clerk of the Assembly changed her mind, and her trajectory.
“I realized I can do this job just as much as [men] can,” she said.
Although she has no aspirations for higher office at this point; she loves being a Freeholder.
“She brings a great effort to Board of Chosen Freeholders. Ocean County is lucky to have a person like that to serve in office. It is a great honor to be director,” Buckelew said. There have maybe been 50 persons total who have served as county freeholder since the county was founded in 1850, and out of those, only a couple woman. “Having women in politics is essential today. It was essential always, but more essential today.”