Celeste Fernandez, candidate for freeholder at-large in Atlantic County, said she made her decision to run for office on November 9, 2016, which makes it easy to count her among the millions of women moved to action by the ascension of a reality TV star who boasted of sexual assault to the office of President of the United States. But Fernandez did not seem especially angry on a recent Wednesday morning at her campaign head-quarters in Pleasantville.
She wanted to talk about the economy. Or said she did.
In 2015, the Atlantic County Improvement Authority published a study by Angelou Economics, a Texas firm hired at a cost of $175,000, to propose recommendations for salvaging the regional economy. Among the fun facts in the study: Atlantic County was overly dependent on a single industry (gaming) and suffered from a lack of workforce training. There was also a lack of leadership from elected officials.
“Once you paid that money and had that plan, you had to implement it,” Fernandez said.
“They took their time, in a moment when the economy was a disaster.”
Fernandez runs a small insurance business off Main Street in Pleasantville. Before that she worked for UNITE HERE HEALTH, the benefits office for the casino-workers union. Before that she was a bartender and waitress and did stints at the Trump Plaza, Trump Marina and Trump Taj Mahal.
At one point, she had a run-in with the future president and first lady. “I had the opportunity to serve him and his girl-friend at the Deck,” she said. The bar staff were in a panic, she said, with the boss in the house. Her executive director was next to her. But Celeste made a frozen cocktail for the president, who is famously a teetotaler, to give to then-girlfriend Melania. “He didn’t drink, but he tasted it before he gave it to her,” she said.
“He was arrogant, at that time, as a boss, is what I can tell you,” Fernandez said. “I’d seen in the casino, how he walks, how he looks at employees—very belittling, just with his eyes. And it happened to me a couple of times. It happened to me a couple of times.”
While working at the casino, Fernandez went to ACCC and studied office systems technology. In 2011, she got the job with UNITE HERE. In 2015, following the casino closures, she was laid off and went into business for herself.
“When those casinos closed, at that time, it was a disaster, because that’s all that we knew was just…to work at the casino. There was a lack, and there is a lack, of skills. People were depressed.”
“I decided to prepare myself and do something different to empower myself.”
Her opponent is three-term incumbent Frank Formica, but you do get the sense that Fernandez is running against something bigger.
“Every day it’s something new,” she said. “Our rights, our human rights, have been challenged.”
“A woman’s right to choose is under threat.”
“Of course, families belong together. Those kids…ripped apart. Man, if that don’t make you cringe and cry and your heart hurt and ache, what is going to make you step up?”