Profile: She’s Working for Progressive Change at the Grassroots Level

Meir Rinde | March 17, 2016 | Profiles
Head of NJ Citizen Action counts successful campaign for paid sick leave among top accomplishments

Phyllis Salowe-Kaye
Who she is: Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of NJ Citizen Action

Where she lives: West Orange

Age: 69

Why she’s important: For 30 years, Salowe-Kaye has headed NJ Citizen Action, one of the state’s leading progressive advocacy and social service organizations. Citizen Action is involved in many issues facing the state, including housing, the environment, healthcare, and quality of life issues. It pressures banks into providing services to underserved communities, lobbies for paid sick days and a higher minimum wage, and provides tax preparation and healthcare signup services. It also endorses and supports like-minded political candidates through its political action committee.

Recent work: NJ Citizen Action successfully pushed for New Jersey to become one of three states with a paid family leave program. Together with NJ Working Families and other groups, the organization has gotten around Gov. Chris Christie’s opposition to paid sick days by lobbying for local mandates; so far 12 cities have adopted sick day laws. It’s lobbying now for laws that would establish equal pay for women, a higher minimum wage, and universal pre-K, among others.

And that’s just part of its portfolio. On the services side, Citizen Action continues to provide homeownership and foreclosure counseling, tax preparation services, and health insurance enrollment assistance, and it sells discounted home heating oil. Separate arms of the organization conduct partisan and nonpartisan political work, including running candidates and working on ballot initiatives.

“We’re a big organization, and there’s a lot of issues that we do. Of course I run the organization and raise the money, and I do all the regular things an executive director would do,” Salowe-Kaye said. “But there are the issues that I am most involved in directly, which most executive director wouldn’t do, which are the banking issues and the work and family issues.”

The organization’s workforce ranges from 30 to 40 people and it has 60,000 members who either pay dues or affirm their membership.

Her background: Salowe-Kaye grew up in Bradley Beach and studied education at Boston University, where one of her first political actions was a “food fight” over bad cafeteria food. She also protested the Vietnam War and harbored an AWOL soldier in her dorm.

“It sort of started in college,” she said. “On the other hand, I was, like, a hippy. I sold flowers on the beach. We were not what would one call a union household. But I started teaching, and I immediately got involved in the teachers’ strike because conditions were so bad.”

She went on to teach elementary school in Newark for nine years, and in 1971 was one of 200 teachers who went to jail for conducting an illegal strike. It was the first time teachers had been jailed for striking. She was later part of a study group run by a group of nuns and attended by the wife of radical ex-priest Phillip Berrigan, reading about Gandhi and kibbutzes. The group began conducting social actions like going into supermarkets and throwing expired frozen food out of display cases, and also got involved in the fight for affordable housing.

“We went town to town in New Jersey, getting rent control passed in 113 municipalities. That’s when I learned about organizing,” she said. “I started out as the president of the tenant association in my building, then the president of the Orange tenants association, then the head of the Essex County housing coalition, and then for 14 years I was head of the New Jersey tenants organization.”

A career in organizing: Salowe-Kaye quit teaching, and after Peter Shapiro became Essex County executive on an affordable housing platform, she worked for the county’s tenant resource center. Citizen Action groups were being organized in states around the country; she joined the board of the New Jersey organization and after two years became its director.

Early victories: NJ Citizen Action focused on environmental issues initially, helping to win passage of a law that requires companies to publicize information about hazardous chemicals they use. During the Kean administration, the group worked on closing tax “loopholes” for corporations, an effort that continues to this day with mixed success, Salowe-Kaye said.

In 1986, when Midlantic Bank prepared to merge with Continental Bank, NJCA and other organizations used the threat of a challenge under the federal Community Reinvestment Act to get the bank to agree to provide below-market-rate mortgages, home improvement loans, and community and economic development loans to low-income families, women and minorities. Citizen Action has since use the CRA to secure $30 billion in commitments from state banks for such services.

In what she described as another “big win,” NJCA and other groups worked through the state Public Utilities Commission to oppose the proposed merger of PSEG and Exelon, which would have been “horrific” for taxpayers, Salowe-Kaye said. The merger was abandoned in 2006.

Other public service: Salowe-Kaye has served in many other positions, including as a trustee of the Teacher’s Pension and Annuity Fund, on transition teams for Gov. Jon Corzine and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, and as a commissioner of the NJ Public Broadcasting Authority. She recently served on the Federal Reserve Community Advisory Council, and also served on a state Department of Banking urban task force, on the state’s Housing Tasking Force, and on a special task force for state Superior Court’s tenant/landlord division.

Politics under Christie: NJ Citizen Action has repeatedly called on Gov. Chris Christie to resign for spending so much time out of state on his and Donald Trump’s presidential campaigns, and for not meeting various commitments.

Salowe-Kaye says her group has worked with both Democratic and Republican governors over the years, but has encountered implacable opposition from the current administration. Christie has vetoed legislation the organization supports, cut funding for existing programs, and diverted state monies from their intended use to balance the budget, she said.

“It’s been really hard on our members. It’s hard to accomplish things in the Legislature, which is one reason we’ve moved…to the county and city level. Really good policy is really being held hostage by this governor with his vetoes. So far the legislature hasn’t really stood up to him,” Salowe-Kaye said.

Her family: Salowe-Kaye and her husband, a retired pharmaceutical company accountant, have two children and three grandchildren.

Personal struggles: Salowe-Kaye’s parents both had cancer and her husband has leukemia. When she was 37, she was diagnosed with fibrosarcoma, a rare cancer that usually appears in the extremities of black men in their 50s. In addition to having that slow-growing tumor in her head, she has had breast cancer. Two years ago she castigated Christie for ending a one-year, $10 million increase in cancer research subsidies.

When she’s not working: Salowe-Kaye grew up at the beach and it remains her “greatest love.” “Once you get that sand between your toes, it never goes away,” she said. She loves cooking, reading and music, especially folk and blues. Last year she and her husband went on a long “blues cruise” drive through the South, visiting famous blues cities and musicians’ graves.