They have been friends, political allies, and fellow members of Congregation Etz Chaim in Livingston for several years.
Now, as of Jan. 2, Deborah Shapiro and Michael Rieber have another distinction. Together, they form the Republican minority on the five-person Livingston Township Council.
Elected in November, the two were installed, along with two Democratic newcomers, at a ceremony in the crowded chambers of the Livingston Municipal Council.
Swearing them in was Etz Chaim’s religious leader, Rabbi Shlomo Krupka.
“My father would have been bursting with pride,” Shapiro told NJ Jewish News a day later. “The moment itself was wonderful. But the rest of the installation I could have missed. Politicians like to hear themselves talk.”
Rieber and Shapiro, neither of whom had run for office before, were beneficiaries of a Republican political rebound in last November’s election. They beat out two incumbent Democrats — Mayor Arlene Johnson and council member Charles “Buddy” August. Democrat Rudy Fernandez was the sole incumbent to be re-elected to the five-member council.
Both newcomers ran on a platform of lower taxes.
“All I saw were my taxes going up and services were being cut,” Rieber told NJJN. “You can sit and complain, but if you don’t do anything about it you deserve what you get.”
“I ran because every time I reached into my pocket I found my town’s hand in there,” agreed Shapiro. “My taxes had gone up and everybody’s taxes had gone up astronomically. My husband and I are not just talkers; we’re doers. So we both decided to run for the council.” Her husband, Oliver Shapiro, was defeated by seven votes.
Noting that Livingston is “in the neighborhood of $60 million in debt,” Rieber said, “We are going to have to bond out that debt eventually and start paying it back. Thankfully, interest rates are low.”
His suggestions for cost-saving include purchasing municipal vehicles that use biodiesel fuel instead of gasoline and mulching instead of carting away fallen leaves from homeowners’ lawns. Mulching would “save the town a couple of hundred thousand dollars,” said Rieber, who has been appointed to the Council’s Green Committee.
One cost-cutting item on Shapiro’s agenda is “reaching out to the townships around us —Montclair and Verona and West Orange — to start sharing municipal services. It is just getting too expensive for every government organization to be carrying themselves.”
She is also committed to achieving “greater transparency in government” by televising town meetings on Livingston’s public access cable station.
She considers Livingston “a microcosm of America, with people who are very wealthy and people who don’t have anything.”
Yet she acknowledged that Livingston might also be a microcosm of the country’s deep partisan divides between Republicans and Democrats.
“I’ll tell you: We have not seen any warmth coming over from the Democratic side of town, but Mike and I say we look forward to working together,” Shapiro said.
“Debbie and I are still a minority, and if we wanted to make major changes we are not able to do that,” said Rieber. “Personally, I have a nice relationship with the Democrats who have been in office for awhile. They are nice guys. They are not necessarily going to give in to everything we want, but they are reasonable guys.”
While both attend an Orthodox synagogue, the new council members say they have no religious agenda. “The only relevance my being Jewish has had thus far is that we had to change the time of the budget meetings from Saturdays to Sundays,” said Shapiro.
“I believe in separation of church and state,” said Rieber. “I have no agenda.”
Shapiro is the full-time CEO of WFS Services in Secaucus, a company that provides billing services for hospitals and physicians. She is also the mother of three sons, ages 24, 22, and 21. Her husband runs the Essex County Summer Players, a community-based orchestra, and is associate editor of Shooting Sports Weekly.
Rieber has a private practice as an orthopedic surgeon and a young family that includes his wife, Sarah, and three children. Daughter Sasha, who was born in December, joins Jonah, three, a preschooler at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, and Emma, five, a first-grader at Golda Och Academy in West Orange. Both are Conservative institutions, but, Rieber said, “In my heart I’m an Orthodox guy; I am a yeshiva boy,” he told NJJN.
Both he and Shapiro are pledging to spend many other hours each week on municipal business.
“I can’t be a councilman half-way,” Rieber said. “Right now I am new at this, so for me it is very exciting. I am not bored by it yet.”