For the last month, the Verona High School class of 2021 has been spending its time in businesses, not classrooms, as part of the annual senior Capstone. Isabella Hussar, however, spent her time on the front lines of New Jersey politics, the first VHS student to do a Capstone that way.
Hussar interned on Christine Clarke’s state Senate campaign for District 26, which includes Verona, to get a jump on her intended Rutgers University majors, political science and journalism. “A local campaign runs very differently than a big election like a general presidential election,” Hussar says, “and I thought that getting this experience would give me an idea of what I want to go into because it is working for a real campaign.”
Hussar became attuned to politics at an early age. In 2017, she was in the massive crowd for the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., held a day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. She’s written about voting for a student-focused website and, last year, attended the American Civil Liberties Union’s summer advocacy program. At VHS, she has taken AP United States Government and Politics. “The more I learned about [politics] the more interested I became,” Hussar says.
VHS students must find their own Capstone mentors and Hussar first reached out to Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ11). Sherrill wasn’t able to take on a high school intern, but her office directed Hussar to Clarke, whose focus on sustainability and green jobs proved appealing. Hussar has worked on many different tasks for the campaign, from canvassing and phone-banking to fundraising, noting proudly that after she organized a contact database, Clarke’s campaign sent out an email and raised over $1,000.
Clarke ran unsuccessfully for state Assembly in 2019, but as a complete unknown still managed to capture 21.74% of the votes, compared to 28.48% for Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce and 28.16% for Assemblyman Jay Webber, both Republicans. (In this year’s primary, DeCroce finished third after Webber and a challenger, Christian Barranco.)
In November, Clarke will be challenging Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, who has been in the Senate since 2008 and previously served in the state Assembly. Pennacchio has sponsored bills on pension reform and preserving open space, but voted against banning the use of conversion therapy on minors. He has also been a strong supporter of former President Trump, pushing to use hydroxychloroquine to fight COVID even after the National Institutes of Health found it was not improving outcomes in COVID-19 patients. In a speech to the state Senate on June 3, Pennacchio condemned Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for his work during the pandemic.
In interning for Clark, Hussar has seen that between the supposedly rock-solid blocks of blue and red voters lies a large expanse of purple. While there are more registered Republicans than Democrats (34.9% to 26.3%) in the 26th, unaffiliated voters outnumber both, at 37.8% of the electorate. And these purple voters have been receptive to Clarke’s ideas.
“People are a lot more polite than I thought they’d be,” Hussar says of her canvassing experience. “Some are not really willing to talk, but some are open and want to listen and take the literature.”
Hussar encourages future Capstone interns to consider working on a political campaign. “It’s really interesting to see both sides because it helps you understand how people vote,” she says. “Be prepared for tedious assignments but you’ll be able to get over it.”
Hussar will continue to help Clarke’s campaign over the summer, reaching out to Verona’s student voters and working on a video on wind energy. And, she is quick to add, “I’ll be voting in November.”