When Teresa Ruiz, now a state senator, became more involved in grassroots politics in her hometown of Newark more than 15 years ago, there were rumors that local Democratic Party leaders were going to tap her to run for office. Her father asked her what she would do.
“If I get asked, I’m going to say no,” she remembers telling him at the time, in 2006. Ruiz didn’t think she was ready for a career in politics. But her father, with whom she was close, loved the political world and was community minded, so he wanted her to run.
He answered, “If you say no, I’m never going to forgive you.”
Two weeks later, her beloved father, Silvestre, was struck by a car and killed. Ruiz was devastated.
When Democratic leaders did come around and ask her to run for state Senate, she said she needed time to consider it.
“I remember being at a political rally and looking at the stage. It was very homogeneous. It was white males of a certain age, and there were no women or people of color,” she says. “I said to myself, You can accept this reality, or you can change what that stage looks like, moving forward. After that, I decided I would do it—I’d run.”
That catapulted her into a political career that began in 2007, when she was elected state senator for the 29th Legislative District, representing Newark and Belleville, in a landslide victory. She was the first Puerto Rican elected to the New Jersey Senate, and has since been reelected three times.
Fourteen years after first taking office, her father would have been proud to watch her as she was sworn in as state Senate majority leader on Tuesday, January 11, making her the highest-ranking Latina in New Jersey.
Ruiz, 47, is breaking barriers at a time when Latino and Black advocates are calling for more representation among leadership in the state Legislature. While New Jersey may be one of the most diverse states in America, the power brokers in the state haven’t reflected that—until now.
Since 1999, she has worked as deputy chief of staff to Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. “She’s tough because she knows what it takes to get things done. That’s what is important in politics. She’s going to do what she can to make a difference for the people of Essex County and for the people of New Jersey. She’s the right person at the right time,” DiVincenzo says, noting that the Latino community is the fastest-growing group in New Jersey. But he clarifies:
“She’s in that position because she’s the most qualified person to be there.”
Ruiz was also the first Latina to serve in the Senate leadership when she was elected assistant majority leader in 2010. She served in that position until 2017 and was elected Senate president pro tempore the following year.
She says the experience of running for office after her father died made her realize it was the right thing to do. “Running was tremendously cathartic. When I knocked on doors, it was as if I was learning about my dad all over again through the different experiences that these people were sharing with me,” remembers Ruiz, who has been described as being outgoing and friendly. She is also known as someone who gets things done.
That will be useful since, as Senate majority leader, Ruiz will work to develop and promote her party’s legislative agenda. She will also be the principal speaker during debates on the Senate floor.
Until she was named to a leadership position in the party, there was at least a decade when there wasn’t a Latino voice at the table who was part of the policy-making decision process.
“It meant that when decisions were being made, I was inside the room and not outside the space,” she says. “This new position is about bringing an entire community with me when we’re making critical decisions about bills and budgets and policies and regulations. This is an opportunity for those voices to be heard that don’t necessarily get heard on a daily basis.”
DiVincenzo says what makes Ruiz unique is that she has experience with all levels of government. “She works both sides of the aisle and tries to get a consensus. She’s very strong on issues. Teresa knows what she believes in; she wants to be there to push and get things done and change people’s lives. She’s very well respected,” he says.
Her signature issues in the Senate are immigration, women’s health and education. But education has always been her passion; she has served as Senate Education Committee chair since 2010 and helped expand access to early-childhood education throughout the state. She pushed to offer free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch to all qualifying students in New Jersey and sponsored bills to increase teacher diversity.
“The way we effectively change our communities is by making sure every public school helps every person reach their potential,” she says. “Everything goes back to education.”
Her father was, once again, the impetus for this chapter in her life. “My dad only made it to fourth grade. That’s why I’m so committed to education, because I saw his trajectory and that he was a brilliant human being, but our life opportunities were extraordinarily different,” she says.
When he came to Newark from Puerto Rico, he worked at a cheese factory, making 95 cents an hour. He bused tables at a restaurant, then owned a bodega. He ended up working in construction in a cardboard factory.
At times, Ruiz’s ideas have been controversial: She introduced the bill in 2011 to change tenure laws for public school teachers in the state. Under the new law, it became more difficult for teachers to achieve lifetime tenure. The law also makes it easier to fire bad teachers.
Ruiz, who worked in an early-childhood development center when she was in her twenties, said at the time that the tenure law would ensure that all children, regardless of their background, their zip code or their socioeconomic status, would have the opportunities they deserved to achieve educational excellence.
“We don’t respect teachers and support them the way we should,” she says now. “The most critical thing is for all children to have a high-quality teacher in their classroom.”
After more than a year of debate, the bill was passed by the Senate and unanimously passed by the Assembly. It was signed by then Governor Chris Christie, a fierce critic of the state teachers union, which also backed the bill in the end.
When it passed, lawmakers joked that Ruiz should broker a peace accord in the Middle East next.
“I’m deliberative with my approach on policy. I like to bring everyone to the table,” she says.
Ruiz has also focused on expanding employment opportunities for underserved communities and introduced bills that would allow undocumented students in New Jersey colleges and universities to qualify for in-state tuition and financial aid, even if they don’t have a social security number.
Family has always been important to Ruiz, who is the mother of a 5-year-old girl named Silver Inaru, after her late father and her sister-in-law, who also passed away. (Inaru means “spirit of a woman” in indigenous Puerto Rican culture.)
But after giving birth, Ruiz was overwhelmed by the demands of having a newborn baby—especially breastfeeding, which she was committed to doing. When a nurse visited her at home and helped her with feeding issues, she was grateful. The experience prompted her to introduce a nurse-visitation bill that gives every parent in the state with a newborn the opportunity to have up to three nurse visits at home, free of charge. Governor Phil Murphy signed the bill into law in July.
“This bill is so important to me; it’s a phenomenal program, and it will undoubtedly save lives,” she says, adding that she was the first New Jersey state senator to give birth while in office. “It comes from the lens of who I am.”
Ruiz replaces longtime state Senator Loretta Weinberg, who retired in January, as Senate majority leader.
“Senator Ruiz was a great choice to become the majority leader,” says Weinberg. “She’s not timid; in leadership meetings, she’s not afraid to speak up, and it’s important to have your voice heard when you’re dealing with a group of guys.”
When Senator Ruiz weighs in, it’s often around issues dealing with educational equity, women and families, says Weinberg.
And while she’s tough, she also has a great sense of humor, which is important when things get tense. “You have to have the ability to stand back and laugh at yourself,” says Weinberg.
Ruiz is encouraging of the sisterhood in the Senate, and is supportive when it comes to personal issues that other senators might have, Weinberg says.
She notes that Ruiz introduced a bill to allow candidates for the Senate to use campaign funds for childcare. It makes sense, she says—candidates can use the money to pay for their car and other necessities, so why not for childcare, too? It was signed into law in 2020. “That bill was a strong statement to help women run for office. She’s got all the right instincts,” says Weinberg.
Ruiz lives in Newark with her husband, Samuel Gonzalez, and their young daughter. Her husband is chief of staff for Newark Councilman Anibal Ramos and is a former Essex County freeholder. Gonzalez stepped down in 2011 after he was accused of campaign fraud in his wife’s election. In an agreement with prosecutors, he entered a pretrial intervention program, which did not include an admission of guilt, and the charges were eventually dismissed, says his attorney, Michael Critchley. Ruiz was never accused of any wrongdoing in the matter.
“My husband, Samuel, is a devoted father, a loving partner and a hard-working public servant,” says Ruiz.
Ruiz received a bachelor’s degree from Drew University in Madison. She’s an aficionado of the arts, especially the arts community in Newark, and loves fashion, karaoke, and doing arts and crafts projects with her daughter.
What’s next for her?
“I never say never,” she says. “I said never to running for public office. The day after I got elected, I woke up and said, What did I do? Now it’s for real.”
For some reason, on that same day in 2007, she decided to check her horoscope in the newspaper, something she doesn’t normally do. It said: “Your dreams belong to you, but more importantly, you belong to them. Let them lead you. Do not doubt that the path you have stumbled upon is the right one for you. You are not here by mistake.”
She still keeps the brown and worn-out clipping from that newspaper horoscope taped above her desk.
Ruiz says it sums up her last decade in public office: “Often we get catapulted into spaces that we never thought we would be in. But the truth of the matter is, this pathway was carved out for me by women and people of color who were waiting for me to get into this space.”Click here to leave a comment