Democrat Atlantic County Freeholder-at-large candidate Celeste Fernandez.

PLEASANTVILLE – Businesswoman Celeste Fernandez, the Democrat candidate for Atlantic County Freeholder-at-large, believes she was born to serve.

“I’ve been involved in women’s rights and immigrant rights and helping casino workers for more than 15 years,” she said in her insurance office, Fernandez Services, LLC, on the Black Horse Pike in Pleasantville. “I was born to serve.”

Fernandez, 46, of Egg Harbor Township, emigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic 23 years ago with her now ex-husband and her 2-year-old daughter. She became a citizen in 2009.

“We came here because his mother was here, and I wanted my daughter to get a better education and have more opportunity,” she said.

The single mother of three children, ages 18 to 27, and four granddaughters, has lived her life working to help the underserved Hispanic and minority communities, but it wasn’t until the 2016 election that she got involved in politics.

“For years, I was the voice of people who had no voice. I volunteered as a liaison between the public and the politicians, but then I realized it wasn’t enough to be bringing resources to the community. I wanted to do more and be at the table making the decisions,” she said.

In addition to her insurance business, Fernandez is a founding member of Main Street Small Business, LLC, which provides services for immigration, citizenship, translation and small business development.

Fernandez is challenging nine-year Republican incumbent Frank Formica for the at-large seat. Her running mate Maureen Leidy is challenging Maureen Kern for the District 2 seat, and Barbara Butterhof-Rheault is challenging Republican incumbent Jim Bertino for the District 5 seat. The board is currently controlled by Republicans 6-3, and now has four women on the dais.

To support her family, she worked as a bartender at several Atlantic City casinos over a 17-year period, and eventually became a union organizer at UniteHERE Local 54. She worked for five years as a Resource Team member for the union’s health benefits program and learned all facets of the organization until the casino implosion greatly reduced the union’s membership and she was laid off from her job.

She also fought back from injuries sustained in a car accident that resulted in surgery to replace two discs in her neck.

“That’s how I know how important health insurance is,” she said. “My bill for surgery alone was $200,000.”

She took online courses to become an independent insurance agent in 2014 and obtained four insurance certifications. She is licensed to sell insurance in five states, she said. Two years later, she opened her own business which has grown exponentially. Her clientele is “very diverse,” she said.

“I started with a one-room office. We moved to this location earlier this year, right after I started my campaign,” she said.

Fernandez said the current Freeholder Board has not moved quickly enough to see any return on the recommendations made in the Angelou Economics Report, which pointed to economic development in the aviation industry in a 1-mile area around the Atlantic City airport. Fernandez said she and her running mates are ready to provide the leadership to make things happen.

“Some politicians keep promising the same things over and over, yet we never see any changes,” she said. “You need desire and willingness to go along with experience.”

As she goes door-to-door campaigning, people ask her not to forget them.

“Social issues, such as immigration reform, health care reform, and small business development have to go along with diversifying the economy,” she said.

Once she is seated on the board, her game plan is to diversify Atlantic County’s current one-industry economy and bring social resources to the community. She will foster innovation, fight the opioid crisis and increase the tax base. One way to do all that is to set priorities, which includes her plan to rehabilitate and renovate foreclosures to make home ownership affordable, she said.

Fernandez said she would turn to the state for grant funds to hire small local construction companies to renovate foreclosures before selling them at an affordable price.

“We have a roadmap for the steps we have to take. The aviation industry is not moving fast enough, and the progress has been slow. The plan was developed in 2015. It’s three years later, and the new building is not expected to open until 2019,” she said.

When the FAA finally does take residence in the first of seven planned buildings at the Stockton Aviation Research Park, workers will have to come from outside of Atlantic County, due to a lack of a trained workforce, she said.

“It’s good that Atlantic Cape Community College and Stockton University are helping to educate the workforce for these high-paying jobs. But they are just starting to get people prepared. We need to get up to speed so Atlantic County residents can fill those jobs,” she said.

She will also tackle the opioid crisis and homelessness and work to improve safety in the Tourism District, which “should have been done three years ago,” she said.

Fernandez said it’s all about setting priorities and working together with municipal, county and state officials to get things done.

“Instead of working individually like the county does now, we will work together. It takes a village, teamwork,” she said. “The state must work with the county and the county must work with the municipalities. When they all get together, they will come up with new ideas. I want to be the one who makes the connections. We need to collaborate and then delegate to solve our issues.”

She envisions working on the Freeholder Board with her District 2 running mate Maureen Leidy, who has a background in counseling for domestic violence issues, to help solve the opiate epidemic.

“The Hope 1 van is saving lives by providing resources, but we need to plan for the next steps after rehab. We need a plan for re-entry that includes counseling, proper housing and preparing those in recovery for the workforce.”

And she will work with her District 5 running mate Barbara Butterhof-Rheault, a STEM teacher in the Mullica Township schools, on education issues.

“You can’t just do economic development. You have to work on the social issues to move forward. That’s where the county lacks focus. We know about social issues and what people need. I’m out there and see what people need. We will attack it head-on once we are up there,” she said.

She has been holding fundraisers to finance her campaign but attending events and conducting phone banks provide the most feedback from constituents, she said.

“The people say they want change and new ideas. They are excited to see three women who will bring those new ideas,” she said. “I let them know things will get done in a better and faster way because we will put our hearts into making it happen.”


This is the fourth in a series of stories focusing on the Nov. 6 general election in Downbeach.

Copyright MediaWize 2018

Nanette LoBiondo Galloway

Award winning journalist covering news, events and people of Atlantic County for more than 20 years.