You could have forgiven Petra Gaskins and Manuel Castaneda if they slept in the morning after they were elected as the newest members of the City Council last week.
After a night of celebrating, they were at the firehouse on Joyce Kilmer Avenue early Wednesday to show their support for a 10-year-old boy who was having his dream of being a firefighter for a day fulfilled by the New Brunswick Fire Department through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Gaskins and Castaneda had a happy, accomplished glow about them after blazing a historic trail Tuesday night.
Gaskins is the first Black woman to be elected to the City Council. At 29, she is also believed to be the youngest person.
And, Castaneda is the first Latino man to be elected to the City Council, and just the third Latino overall.
They are eager to bring their unique perspectives and experiences to the city’s governing body when they start their terms in January as the City Council expands from five to seven members.
“I wish I really had words to express how it feels,” Gaskins said. “What I do feel is an immense sense of responsibility of knowing that in the entire city to be the first and what it means to be the first, with so many Black women and young people, right, will look to me and see me and hopefully see my participation and know their voices are included. That is a humbling privilege and responsibility.”
Sure, you could say their elections were anti-climactic because they ran unopposed on a ticket with incumbent council members Rebecca Escobar and Kevin Egan, as well as Mayor Jim Cahill. Still, Gaskins, who will serve a four-year term, received 3,304 votes. Castaneda, who will initially serve a two-year term with four-year terms thereafter, received 3,401 votes.
Castaneda said he didn’t campaign as if he was running unopposed. He is half-kidding when he says that his wife of 13 years, Karla, and their two kids didn’t see much of him in the weeks leading up to the election.
He has forged deep connections in New Brunswick over the years, first serving as a case manager at Rutgers University-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and more recently as the Director of Community Health at New Brunswick Tomorrow.
The man who helped launch a number of successful community-based health initiatives, such as the “Live Well Vivir Bien” campaign and the New Brunswick Healthy Housing Collaborative, said he will bring that sort of community-focused service to his work on the council.
“I think the work that I do on a grassroots level has spoken volumes here,” Castaneda said Tuesday night. “What I want to do is to continue to be that bridge between our population, and not just one population, but all of them – recognizing also the importance of making sure that our most marginalized also have a voice. So, that’s one of the reasons I was out there kissing babies and at ribbon cuttings because it’s not a matter of whether you have anything to win or lose. It’s about I want to be representative of everybody.”
Originally from Hawaii, Gaskins came to New Jersey to attend Rider University and ended up settling in New Brunswick a few years ago. She serves as Chief of Staff for State Sen. Andrew Zwicker (D-16th Dist.), focusing on engaging with the community and ensuring proposed legislation is relevant and impactful to all constituents. Before joining the senator’s office, Gaskins served as Outreach Director to Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12th Dist.), as part of various roles over a six-year period.
“When it comes to the actual work, it’s important to remember that I work in the State Senate and I work primarily with the state budget,” Gaskins said. “So, I’m well-versed with how the state interacts with the county and municipalities.”
To that end, she said she could use her seat on the council to spread information about programs that would help city residents. For instance, she wonders how many of them have taken advantage of the Anchor Property Tax Benefit Program, which provides relief to residents who owned or rented their principal residence on Oct. 1, 2019, and met certain income limits. (The filing deadline is Dec. 30).
Gaskins also knows just her presence at the table in Council Chambers will make a huge impact on the city.
“When we talk about perspective, it’s not just a word. It’s the truth,” she said. “This is how young people in their 20s, young people in their 30s feel. I think a lot of those folks are more comfortable coming to me. That’s what I saw on the campaign trail.”