Mila Jasey set to leave the Legislature to pursue life as a full-time grandma
If you have lived in the two towns for any length of time and have attended any official or semi-official function, then you likely have crossed paths with Mila Jasey.
She is the small, smiling, perky one in the blazer, shaking hands, nodding her head and listening intently to whomever has requested her attention.
Jasey’s omnipresence and her smile have made her a respected and beloved state assemblywoman. Her chief of staff, Mary Theroux, contends she is part of the most effective legislative team in the state.
But all the hard work has taken its toll, and Jasey plans to call it quits in January after 16 years in Trenton. It’s not because she no longer loves the work or doesn’t believe in its importance but because, she says, “I don’t have the time or energy to do the job as I know it needs to be done.”
She is 72 now, a grandmother of seven, and her 99-year-old mother lives with her and her husband of nearly 50 years. And the job, though classified as part time, demands near constant face time, much of it at night and on weekends.
The loss is sure to be felt deeply in the two towns. A resident of South Orange for 47 years, Jasey is more like a well-placed friend than a legislator. Her presence has given Maplewood and South Orange a sense of connection and a feeling that someone has been down in the state capital letting those in charge know what we thought and needed.
Regardless of the honorifics she deserves, most refer to her simply as “Mila.”
That might be because she is the type of citizen politician dreamed of by the founding fathers. She never planned on being a representative. Indeed, she got the seat originally by appointment; her only other previous political service was on the towns’ school board for eight years, including two as president.
She had spent her life in other spheres. She graduated from Barnard College with a degree in history and intended to be a teacher. Unable to find a teaching job, she turned to nursing, taking a two-year course in Manhattan.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she says.
She professes to hate hospitals, and she says she discovered she did not have the stomach to spend her days in one. She turned to rehabilitation and had a long, successful career in that field, although it often was interrupted by motherhood responsibilities aggravated by the lack of child care.
Certainly Jasey’s life experiences have informed her politics. She likes to tell a story about her mother, for example: A couple of years after Jasey’s father died on the operating table at age 31, the young widow remarried. Her new husband was controlling. Jasey’s mother already had three children, and soon she had four more, one of them with Down syndrome. Her doctor recommended a tubal ligation. Back then, a wife needed her husband’s signature to proceed, and Jasey’s stepfather refused. She gave birth to four more boys: 11 children in all. And Jasey became a passionate defender of a woman’s right to choose.
This month, during the lame-duck Assembly session, she plans to push to codify the expansion of abortion services across the state.
Much of her Assembly work has revolved around education. She chairs the chamber’s higher education committee and is vice chair of the education committee. She also is a longtime member of the joint committee on public schools.
Her school board experience undoubtedly helped her reach those leadership posts, but she also relies on what she learned as a mother and grandmother.
Her daughter, Rhena Jasey-Goodman, became a teacher, first at Seth Boyden School in Maplewood and later at an experimental charter school in New York City. During Chris Christie’s gubernatorial terms, when school funding was under frequent assault, Jasey “kept tremendous pressure to ensure that the most challenged districts continued to receive the level of funding they deserved,” Theroux says.
Jasey fought to bring local control back to the Newark and Paterson school districts and co-chaired hearings in Newark that led to the dissolution of One Newark, a controversial school plan that assigned children to schools across the city. People credit her for creating the state program that allows children from one school district to opt into another, at no cost to their parents.
Recently she led the fight to keep school-based mental health services, Theroux says. And a bill she co-sponsored expanded suicide prevention services on college campuses.
When Rutgers University faculty went on strike in the spring, she joined the picket line.
Jasey has worked on housing affordability, another interest shaped by her experience. She and her husband, Neil, lived first in Manhattan and then in East Orange, his hometown. When it came time to buy, they looked in Montclair and South Orange.
It was 1976, and the Jaseys were shown three houses in South Orange – and none in Maplewood.
“We were definitely steered,” Jasey says.
They bought the least expensive one, in Tuxedo Park. A few years later, pregnant with her third child, Jasey went into labor as they were packing up the house to move to a bigger one in Montrose Park. Her husband, his nephews and her brothers moved the household while she was in the hospital.
“There were things I never found,” she says with a laugh.
Mila and Neil, a retired state Superior Court judge, still live in that house, and it remains the center of her life. On short notice, she threw a victory party there in June for Garnet Hill, her successor. Recently, Jasey’s whole family gathered in the house to celebrate a joint birthday party for her mother and her older brother.
“We would never move,” Jasey says. “I can’t think of living anywhere else.”
She says she loves South Orange not only for the life it has given her but also because the community welcomed her half-brother, Moose, who had Down syndrome and was unable to talk. When her children were young, her mother, her sister and Moose moved into the house next door. Jasey’s mother had been “worried about how he would be received here,” Jasey recalls, “but it was wonderful.”
Moose, a 200-pound gentle giant of a man, was a constant presence at Jasey’s kids’ soccer games. He would stand on the sideline, twirling a homemade “tornado,” a whirligig made of candy wrappers. Once, when he did a belly flop into the South Orange pool, Jasey’s mother was horrified, convinced he had embarrassed his niece, who was in the pool. Instead, all the kids clapped. Moose slipped out of the house several times. “The police found him every time,’’ Jasey remembers, “and brought him home.” Moose is gone, but his imprint remains.
Jasey’s children have pursued careers that in one way or another echo their mother’s. Besides her educator daughter, who now works on teacher retention at Montclair State, she has two sons. One, Neil, is a medical director at the Kessler Institute’s West Orange campus. The other son, Kyle, is running as a Democrat to replace Robert Menendez in the U.S. Senate. His campaign slogan is Jasey for Jersey.
Despite their busy lives, the family spends lots of time together. All the children and their families live within 30 minutes of the Montrose house. The family gathers for Sunday dinner at least once a month.
As a grandmother, Jasey is a stand-in babysitter, an enthusiastic cheerleader and a prolific photographer.
Describing an impromptu family dinner after her oldest grandchild’s final soccer game, she says, “We had the best time!”
She also might be describing her career as legislator and her life in South Orange.
Tia Swanson has known and admired Mila Jasey for nearly all of her more than 25 years in South Orange.