Prof. Julia Sass Rubin: Advocate for Democracy

June 20, 2024

Original article published in TAPintoPrinceton, June 15, 2024

By Pam Hersh
Princeton, NJ – Tuesday, June 4, Primary Election Day in New Jersey, was a big expletive-deleted deal for Princeton resident Julia Sass Rubin, whose name appeared nowhere on any ballot.

Rubin, associate dean of Academic Programs at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning, Rutgers University, invested thousands of hours in a campaign to position names on the ballot in a manner that she and the New Jersey courts agree is fairer and more democratic (small ‘d’).

She was the mover and shaker in the successful effort to get the Office Block Ballot, as opposed to the Party Line or County Line Endorsed Ballot, into the hands of the Democratic Primary voters. (For in-depth information on the Better Ballot Initiative, please see the following posts in the American ProspectTAPinto Princeton, and NJ Spotlight.)“My passionate fight for a better democratic process of having our voices heard can be traced to initiatives by the Christie administration to slash funding for public education,” she says.

There was no indication on the primary ballot, however, that explained why Rubin, whose other academic titles include director of the Public Policy Program and an associate professor at Bloustein, ventured off campus and landed in the whirlwind of New Jersey state politics. The life-long progressive Democrat (big D) traces her ballot reform effort to Republican Governor Chris Christie. More accurately, to a reaction to Governor Christie’s actions.

“My passionate fight for a better democratic process of having our voices heard can be traced to initiatives by the Christie administration to slash funding for public education,” she says.

“That is what started me down this road as not just a public policy academic, but also as an advocate for reforms to strengthen democracy in New Jersey. I was among several other Princeton mothers (including former Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert) to be the organizing founders of Save Our Schools NJ in 2010. We could not figure out why the State Legislature seemed unconcerned with hearing the voices of parents,” says Rubin, whom I always have known as Julia. She and I, who live within a few blocks of one another, cross paths on a regular basis as we both pursue our non-political passion of walking around Princeton’s neighborhoods.

Save Our Schools NJ is a grassroots, all-volunteer organization of parents and other public education supporters who believe that every child in New Jersey should have access to a high-quality public education. The primary goal is to keep the community at large and the state legislators informed about issues that directly impact children’s education.

Julia’s daughter, Raisa (now 22 years old), was a second grader at Community Park School in 2010 when Julia, then an assistant professor of public policy, was busy as a working mom. But her life took on hyper-active intensity, as the state severely impacted local school districts with major cuts in funding and a push for school vouchers.

“I got pulled into a meeting at Community Park School with (former) Princeton School Superintendent Judy Wilson,” Julia recalls, and that “jump started” her efforts to improve electoral democratic processes in New Jersey. Her sought-after reforms include eliminating the county line ballot format in all primary elections (this last election is no guarantee of future better ballots); putting election administration into the hands of nonpartisan professionals; and electing county committees that support a more open primary system.

Julia’s husband, Greg Stankiewicz, who served one term on the Princeton School Board (2016-2019), was empathetic and supportive of his wife’s efforts — not just because he is a good husband, but also because he carries that same strain of public policy/social justice DNA that his wife clearly has. They met one another as undergraduates at Harvard (she was at Radcliff College) and reconnected permanently several years later after they both obtained PhDs (he from Princeton, she from Harvard). While his wife is focused on strengthening democracy, Greg is focused on strengthening New Jersey’s public schools in low-income communities. He is the statewide coordinator for the NJ Community Schools Coalition – certainly a topic for a future column.

And what about their offspring – Raisa Rubin-Stankiewicz? It certainly doesn’t take a rocket scientist with PhDs to figure out that she is a product of her environment and genes. Having just graduated from Rutgers University (summa cum laude), Raisa is working as a policy analyst for the NJ Coalition to End Homelessness, and currently is looking into the issue of homelessness among community college students.

Although her mother swears that her daughter was not raised on a diet of public policy-infused Cheerios, Raisa at the age of 15 was accompanying her father to his school board meetings. During high school, Raisa devoted a lot of time and energy to her volunteer job as a member of VOTE 16USA’s youth advisory board advocating for lowering the voting age in local elections. She is extremely pleased that Newark just passed an ordinance setting the voting age in school board elections at 16 years old.

“Newark is the first municipality in the state to take such action,” says Raisa, who also notes that the state legislature is considering a measure to permit 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in elections for local school boards (S-3240/A-4369).

I was particularly intrigued about the “Rubin” in Julia’s and Raisa’s names – since Rubin is my maiden name. I thought that maybe I could claim some long lost relationship — and a gene or two — to this extraordinary family.

Rubin refers to Julia’s stepfather, Abe Rubin. Sass is the name of her biological father, Liova Sass. The double name is a way to pay tribute to both, she says.

“I am from Russia, and born in St. Petersburg, but traveled back and forth between St. Petersburg and Ukraine where my aunt’s family lived and helped to care for me. My father, a captain in the Russian navy and a university professor, died when I was five weeks old, and my mother, a physician, worked full time to support us. I spent the first nine years of my life in Russia and Ukraine, and then we went to Israel for eight months, where we have family.

“My stepfather, Abe Rubin, whose deceased wife was my mother’s first cousin, met my mother in Russia and then, after our stay in Israel, convinced her to start a new life with him in America. He decided he did not like Brooklyn, NY. He kept moving west and finally settled permanently in Ogden, Utah, renowned for its Mormon heritage, and particularly for the spectacular Latter Day Saints (LDS) edifice, the Ogden Utah Temple.”

In spite of the LDS dominance, Julia says, “there was a small but active Jewish community – we even had a shul (synagogue).”

Julia remembers nothing specific guiding her to a career in public policy, other than she was raised in a family that had spirited conversations about issues during meals. When she was 12 years old, she joined NOW (the National Organization for Women).

Carrying on this tradition, Julia, Greg, and Raisa on a regular basis solve the problems of the community, nation, and the world at their kitchen table. They feed on issues – and in this wacky world, they will never be hungry.

I would like to suggest a ballot initiative establishing the Rubin Sass Stankiewicz Kitchen Table Institute of Public Policy to help the rest of us deal with our political indigestion.

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