A Conversation With New Jersey Lt. Gov. Tahesha Way ’96

Tahesha Way
March 26, 2024

UVA Law alumna Tahesha L. Way ’96 speaks about her career path to the roles of New Jersey lieutenant governor and secretary of state, offers advice to current law students, and stresses the importance of voting in every election.


MARK JEFFERSON: Good morning, Lieutenant Governor, and welcome home.

TAHESHA WAY: Good morning.

MARK JEFFERSON: It's so wonderful to meet you, and it's an honor to have you with us today. I think I want to jump right in. Oftentimes, at least for the last 20, 30 years, we are familiar with this expression, it takes a village. And so my first question for you is what role did your parents and community play, both in shaping the person you are and the career paths that you have traveled?

TAHESHA WAY: Well, again, good morning, Assistant Dean Jefferson. And thank you for all that you do in uplifting equity in this mighty institution. I have to say, before I even get into the role of my parents, that University of Virginia Law School really was where I became who I am today, meaning my love for public interest law.

So I look back on my journey-- growing up in the Bronx, New York, my dad and my mom were both public sector workers. And he, meaning my dad, was a bus driver. My mom was a railroad clerk. And as a child, I just witnessed just the sense of pride that they took just putting on their uniforms or even ironing their uniforms in the public sector. And the one thing I always appreciated was the stories I would hear about their careers.

My dad was very proud that he never ever caused an accident. So for me, that translated into making certain that whoever life you touch, you're doing it seamlessly and effectively. My mother, during her breaks at lunch, would oftentimes feed the homeless. And that then instilled in me the idea of giving back. So when you look at those experiences and just the knowledge that everyday people can impact others' lives, that somehow crystallized some of the pearls, if you will, that I wanted to take with me, let's say, in my role of Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, and all the other paths that I've chosen to somehow be that catalyst and impact of change for others.

MARK JEFFERSON: Beyond your parents, were their teachers or other community members who had an impact on you, who inspired you, in terms of some of the choices you were going to make?

TAHESHA WAY: Sure. There were various, but growing up, I really want to always identify and send some love to my ninth grade English teacher, Mr. Johnson. He was the one who actually saw me in the classroom as being somewhat shy at times. And he knew how much I loved-- I had such a passion for English. That was my undergraduate major at Brown University, English and American literature, I guess because of Mr. Johnson.

But I really want to call forth his name, because he recognized and gave me the confidence to somewhat publicly speak, if you will. There would always be pointed questions in literature that he would ask when we were reading Waiting for Godot, those classic literatures-- Frankenstein, one of my favorites. And when it came to the pointed questions-- and I wouldn't even raise my hand in the beginning. Professor Johnson-- excuse me, Mr. Johnson would always call on me.

And I did not like it initially. I challenged him after class and was really questioning, Mr. Johnson, why are you picking on me? That's exactly what he said. And he said, well, Tahesha, I see you are doing so well, but you're not owning up to who you are. And that struck and stayed with me.

And he was actually the one who somewhat moved me along to become part of-- at the time, it was called the Forensics Club. Not the criminal forensics club, but similar to debate-- the art of public speaking club at my school. And I think that oftentimes, when I'm walking around and I'm giving remarks and everything like that, folk will say, oh, she speaks because she was a civil litigator after law school. And that's how she gained the knack to do this. And I'm like, no, no, no, no, no. It's because credit to Mr. Johnson in forensics.

MARK JEFFERSON: You had me at Godot. Sam Beckett.

TAHESHA WAY: I love that play. Y'all read it, right? Waiting for Godot. No? OK.

MARK JEFFERSON: It's an extraordinary play. You talk about your parents and their commitment to public service and the pride that they took in their work. And I imagine they also instilled in you the capacity to overcome hardship, to see hardship not as just an obstacle to success, but in many ways, one of the main ingredients to success. Could you talk to us about hardships that you've encountered, and how it's contributed to your success?

TAHESHA WAY: Are you referring to hardships of being a 1L at the University of Virginia Law School? I had to overcome that. It was, I think, one part of my life that I oftentimes speak about, which was truly harrowing. I was a rising junior at Brown, living my best life. We all know how undergraduate life is and can be. We focus on our studies, but we can have a good time in college.

And then it was the summer leading into that, and then I suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage. And at that time, it was either save your life-- and at the same time, it was in saving your life, you're probably going to lose your vision. And this is what I was told, truthfully, because the hemorrhage was in the visual area of the brain. So I have to say that that was one of the most difficult periods. But as I reflect on it-- because I'd look at how the medical team that surrounded themselves around me did all that they could do to make me whole again.

And at that time, I still was uncertain what career path I wanted to pursue. I'd always loved English, credit to Mr. Johnson, who I spoke about. But I also had an interest of helping others and being analytical, being the researcher, being an advocate for others. So that's when everything came to fold for me in my journey in junior year.

And I said, I want to go to law school. This is what I'm going to do. So with that ugly hardship, something good was produced, I would say. And in thinking of all of the different law schools that were out there, I definitely wanted to go to a school with a legacy of those who went on and engaged on some level of public policy. And so that's why Virginia was at the top of the list.

I was looking at the history, the Kennedys-- not the one on-- Ted Kennedy. Ted Kennedy, we're talking about him. We're talking about Elaine Jones and all the fine jurists that have been birthed out of this institution. And I was just doing my prayer up, finish my application, and hoped that I would get in here because it was definitely at the top of the list. And I was so thankful that I did get in.

I also look at how in 2006, that was when I first threw my hat into the race of local politics. And I ran successfully. Then in 2009, this was county commissioner position. In New Jersey, it was known-- and I believe Mirabel called it the freeholder. It's no longer called freeholders. It's been changed to everyday language-- in every state, a county commissioner.

But in 2009, we all polled well. We were riding, thinking everything was my ticket, that we were going to win successfully. But we did go down. And for me, that was a true hardship because I really dedicated those three years to my constituents, the 500,000 residents in my county. I even had sacrificed hours of practicing law so that I could become the best county commissioner there was.

And I look back-- I became the president of the county commissioner board in just the three years, which normally doesn't happen. Because I was out there public facing, making sure that I was there for my Passaic County residents. So when I lost, it was again very devastating. And I truly said to myself, OK, I'm going to have to reset. And I just have to rejigger and maybe not even continue along the lines of public service.

But at the same time, the opportunity to become a state administrative law judge then appeared. And for me, it was the perfect marriage of the law that I love and also being a judge who presides over cases which deal with government. And at that moment, as I look at it, I said, wow. I was able to marry these two loves.

But more importantly, looking at today, I gained an understanding of every single state department, because each and every one of those state departments' cases came before me. I speak about environmental cases, all of the human services cases, our civil service cases, the education cases, just to name a few. So I was then able-- and I now look back and say, wow, that was a challenging time. But again, it produced something fruitful to the benefit of what I'm doing in the present day.

MARK JEFFERSON: Let's go back to the hardship of law school.


TAHESHA WAY: What we not?

MARK JEFFERSON: If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your 1L self or your 2L self or your 3L self, knowing what you know now about where your career has taken you? What would you tell you if you could talk to you about starting law school?

TAHESHA WAY: I would have-- I want to say sought to get more perspectives on how to handle not only the caseload, but cases. I think back then-- this was 1993. I don't know what the situation is now. You get your outline group. You stick with your outline group, your core folk. And that's the lens upon which you study the cases. But I look back now, and I say, not to say I should have been in this one's group and this one's group and this one's group, but I wish I was moreso engaging to figure out how everyone else was trying to approach their studies.

And I also want to say that in my circumstance, I look back now, because my Saturdays oftentimes-- for those who may not know this-- were spent watching my husband, who was then a senior on the football team, play. And I would have my books out there in the stadium. And I wouldn't have done that either.

Because I did-- we didn't have the laptops and all the sophisticated modernization. We had our books, and I did bring my books right to Scott Stadium at the time and watched my future husband play football. I wouldn't have never done that moving forward.

MARK JEFFERSON: In your answer, you talk about broadening perspectives. And it seems that we're at a moment, almost a crossroads moment in our country where we need to be able to listen more carefully to others to hear broader perspectives. How do you now in your current role-- or what advice would you give to law students, in terms of broadening your perspectives and getting to know other people and being able to sit in disagreement with people who you have fundamental disagreements with?

TAHESHA WAY: That's truly what's important. I want to go back to when I was a state administrative law judge. The one thing and skill set that I relish is that a majority of-- as we all know, members of the bar, future members of the bar-- everyone knows that a majority of cases get settled. But to sit as that mediator, as I'll call myself at the time, even though I wasn't "the mediator." But in the room, right?

And you get to speak to the different sides. And when you're able to do that and bring everyone together-- because if you listen to an opposing side, there's always going to be something that will come out of his or her mouth that will connect to the other side. And I feel-- and my husband and I have a daughter. Our second daughter just graduated from BC Law, and now she's practicing investment funds and executive compensation.

And I bring her up because when she was asking me, Mom, as a 1L, what should I do? And I was actually connecting her with other 1Ls from other different schools. And at first, she was like, but no, no, no. I don't want to do this because this professor is just teaching. I said, nu-uh, Farrah. Pump your brakes.

Listen to what I'm saying because when you start work, everyone's not going to come from your law school. No disrespect to BC Law. I wasn't saying that. But what was important is for you to have conversations and gain some best practices on how some other students may be handling their situations.

I even look back at 2020, when I was Secretary of State. We know we were all going through a pandemic, and it was nightmarish. And especially for me, being chief elections officer-- and everyone knows nationally what is going on here. And secretaries of state position has truly been uplifted, if you will.

Years ago, no one cared what a secretary of state did. They only cared about the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice or Blinken in this situation. But now everyone is focused on this position. And I speak of 2020 because in New Jersey, in sitting down with the gov's office-- what are we going to do? I said, vote by mail.

We are no excuse vote by mail state. We have the foundation to do this. We're going to pivot to primary vote by mail. And what my team is going to do-- and this is my point. We're going to consult for best practices in other states that have vote by mail as their only method of voting. But we're going to consult a state that is a Republican state, and we're going to consult a state that is a Democratic state.

So we chose Washington State at the time was led by a Republican secretary of state and Colorado was led by a Democratic secretary of state. And the reason why I chose to do that is because I wanted to make certain we're getting the whole picture of how to run this apparatus. We only had six months to implement it.

And not to pat ourselves on the back, but in 2020, as a result of this, we led-- meaning New Jersey, the state-- in youth voter participation. And for one of the first times ever, we were, I want to say, in the top 10 overall with voter turnout and participation. And I speak about this because in my humble opinion, if we can come together, you get successful results.

MARK JEFFERSON: There we go. You have a distinct challenge of wearing two hats, serving as both Lieutenant Governor and Secretary of State. How does your service to both positions work in practice? What is your strategy for managing and prioritizing the numerous issues that come across your desk? That's a lot, a compound question.

TAHESHA WAY: It is. And in addition to those two, I got the husband, the dog, and four daughters. So y'all can just imagine in the great state of New Jersey. But I think that my position as Secretary of State really laid a good transition foundation for me. And the reason because-- yes, my position at the Department of State, top priority is elections.

But at the same time, I oversee travel and tourism. I have a business action center. I oversee historical, the arts, archives. I oversee all of the cultural commissions, the Center for Hispanic Research Policy and Development, and many other smaller portfolios.

And I mention this because every day at State is diverse. I can go from elections in the morning, then I have to pivot to the business action center, then I have to pivot to travel and tourism. The governor brought-- him and his team were successful and marketing and bringing FIFA. We actually get the final match, in addition to other matches in 2026. So now that is a major focus in my department because of the travel and tourism. Then we have the 250th coming up in 2026, too. And so my historical in partnership with travel and tourism are doing their thing in that space.

So now enter Lieutenant Governor, and as New Jersey's Lieutenant Governor, I serve second in command. I'm the one who makes certain that our governor's mission-- his fair and stronger is uplifted on all corners. And of course, when he's unavailable, meaning out of state for business, that's when I become acting governor. At the same time, I have expanded my portfolio in diving into issues such as wealth disparity, college affordability and mental health for our students, and of course doubling down on women's reproductive health rights.

MARK JEFFERSON: What role has mentorship played in your career development? And as you talk, the question that comes to mind is as you continue to go higher and you've achieved more, does it become more of a challenging to find mentors? I imagine part of that requires that you become a mentor. But what role have mentors played in your career trajectory? And do you still seek out mentors, even now?

TAHESHA WAY: That's an excellent question because mentors, in my humble opinion, are very important. I look at my first mentor-- I mentioned her earlier, my mother. Simple as that. Because similar to Mr. Johnson, my mother saw me as somewhat of a shy child.

Oftentimes, getting out the car, she would just say the words, Tahesha, just be present. That was all. In hopes that I could realize in the classroom, you deserve to be here and take up space and you have value.

Then, moving on, I would say that the former Lieutenant Governor who was before me, Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver, who was a matriarch in New Jersey for we African-American government figures. She never was one who would steer you wrong in her advice. She would always tell you like it is and lead you on the right path.

And then I want to say there was an extraordinary woman-- an ordinary woman that I came across in-- I believe it was 2019. Her name is Laura Wooten. Laura, who's no longer with us, was a Princeton University cafeteria worker, amongst all other things. But what was so phenomenal, Assistant Dean and others, about Laura was that she was an African-American woman. And for 79 consecutive years, she worked the polls.

Now, in speaking with Laura, she said, I started at the age of 18. And she is the longest serving poll worker in America. And she would say to me-- she's like, Secretary, I did this at 18, and I'm hoping to inspire the young folk today to be a poll worker.

And I would say, you know what, Laura? But what is even more significant about your legacy is that you did this as an African-American woman during the Civil Rights era, and stood strong. And speaking of the national landscape, it's unsettling that election workers fear to be part of our democracy. And this is serious, very serious that you have folk who want to be a poll worker, but have serious concerns about their safety.

They want to witness democracy in action, and that is a challenge for we lieutenant governors, secretaries of state-- however you want to capture-- all election officials. Because poll workers, election workers stand up our democracy. And if they're not there, then what is going to exist? And so that's why in my shop, I make sure that we try, my team and I, with our Jersey Civic Engage, really galvanize our youth.

We have a college ballot bowl. This year will be our 7th Annual College Ballot Bowl, and this is one of my favorite initiatives of all time. What we do is with our state universities and colleges, we parallel it to football, because I'm a football fan over here. And we break the schools up into conferences according to student population. They have a friendly competition to see who can register most students to vote and also to commit to vote.

We actually have the Giants, the Jets, the Eagles, and we even had the 76ers support us in ways, videos, in-person appearances to kick it off. And then at the end of the friendly competition, we have our touchdown ceremony with the trophy. And I find the students-- they're fired up, they're engaged. And this is what we want our youth to be part of.

And I'm not trying to discriminate on any level with age, but the majority of poll workers are older. You know this. You witness this when you go into your polling locations. But we need somewhat of a younger bench.

I know I even say to some of the poll workers and everybody, how do y'all lift these machines in the morning and get them set up? Because I certify the machines, too, in New Jersey, and I have to go through the drill. And then in the night time, I have to take my Advil for my back because of the machines.

So I truly, again, am concerned. And I just ask each and every one of you in the audience to be a poll worker if you can. Or if you know someone, please not only get them to vote if they're eligible, but make sure that they, too, are poll workers.

MARK JEFFERSON: I'm listening to your story about-- was it Miss Wooten?


MARK JEFFERSON: Miss Wooten. And it makes me think about the fact that we're in election season. It seems like we're always in election season in our country. But we focus on who's running for office, and we focus on political stories and focus on the news of the day. And I wonder, given the various positions you've held as administrative judge and as Secretary of State and as Lieutenant Governor, what you must know about the power of everyday, ordinary people, in terms of what democracy actually is.

And I think so many times we get caught up in, like I said, the big elections, especially presidential elections. But democracy is really something that we're doing every day. And I wonder if you could speak to what you've learned, in terms of just everyday, ordinary people like Miss Wooten, who are steadfast and exhibit endurance and commitment to the power of everyday citizens to impact their communities and states and the larger country?

TAHESHA WAY: You're right. I think Virginia is like New Jersey. You have statewide elections every year? Yeah, that's us. We're like kindred spirits. And I think that voters sometimes say, oh, every single year, there's a statewide election.

Well, you know what, folk? Every election is important. I even say to the New Jersey residents, even your fire district elections are important-- school boards. Everyone wants to challenge. At least in New Jersey, they speak about the property tax bill. Well, your property tax bill-- majority of it is your school portion.

So you really want to engage in where the dollars are being spent. And that's important. Getting to your point about everyday people, I can speak in terms of going back to my Department of State. Democracy, yes. It is about voting. But we know that voting is the floor to other interests, opportunities, et cetera.

It's not just vote, vote, vote. It's also how am I going to participate in hopes of making a democracy more healthy? I look at-- and I hate to go back to 2020, but I look at one of my smaller portfolios, the Office on Volunteerism. Interestingly so-- and I'm happy to see this-- we have about 1 million New Jerseyans who have signed up to serve as volunteers. And this is part of being civically engaged and doing for others and being that ordinary person who is extraordinary, because during COVID, it was people galvanizing and actually serving as tutors, simple as that-- being able to understand environmental challenges.

And even if you're going to be part and volunteer on the recycling, that's something that one can do. And being a grandparent, as a parent, to someone whose parents may not be there. That's also being extraordinary as an ordinary person. And we all can do these things, too. We just have to find what area that we're passionate about and then lend our time, lend our resources.

In law school, I understand the top priority is getting the good grades, participating in clinics, but there's so much more out there in Charlottesville, around the area where folk can get involved in, civically, so that others in hopes could pass that on in what they're doing. I even saw my Council on the Arts-- and this is what I've said to each and every one of my directors. That yes, you're going to focus on what it is you're supposed to support-- organizations, arts, and especially those arts institutions that need that leg up, especially with COVID, as the minority, small arts organizations. But at the same time, I always say to them, you're going to be inclusive in your thinking and you're going to do something civically minded.

Now, what my arts decided to do was outside of various shows and theater venues, they decided to have voter registration drives. Simple as that. You're there anyway, and so now you set up your tables and you have the forms for folk to register to vote. And speaking of being inclusive, because I think that that's too part of who we are in our democracy-- I know that my Historical Commission in 2020, we were celebrating, like everyone else, the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment.

The one thing in speaking to historical that I said was, OK, yeah, women gained the right to vote on paper. But we're going to really give the real truth about the 19th Amendment. We're going to still tell the stories of how Indigenous women, Latinas, Black women still were not able to go to that ballot box. And I think when we captured the whole story in hopes that now everyone understands the civics of all of this, they actually won a documentary Emmy award off of how NJ 100 women evolved.

MARK JEFFERSON: That's extraordinary. You mentioned earlier that in the past, we hadn't paid attention to secretaries of state, and now there's extraordinary scrutiny. What are the biggest concerns or challenges that you feel in front of you going into this election cycle?

TAHESHA WAY: And that's a very important question. I think one of the biggest challenges that my team and I always are doubling down on and laser focused on is the mis and disinformation that is out there. And how of course, AI is a good thing, but at the same time, we have to be proactive on all of this that's going out there, because things may get very intense this year. And everyone needs to make certain that they know their election officials' contact information.

And I'm not just talking about their portals. I'm talking about if you want to fact check something-- your polling location. Because what happens sometimes is that folk get these text messages sending them to a different polling location than the right polling location. And sometimes you may get a text message that may give you the wrong deadline for, let's say, voter registration. And these simple things can lead to mistrust.

I see it as a form of voter suppression that's out there. I look back. Before I came into this administration, when I was thinking about what really, as Secretary of State, on the election front am I going to have to deal with? It was the Russian interference with our elections from 2016.

I came in in 2018, so the first thing that I did was I convened all of our law enforcement and cyber folk in one room. We had the HAVA funds. HAVA funds are the federal funds that secretaries of states and their offices, they do receive to support-- as you know, you hear and read about this in Congress. The HAVA dollars, H-A-V-A. What we want to do is support our election infrastructure and make sure they are shored up.

So convening everyone in the room thinking that it was going to be all about this international influence-- not to say it's not still there. I can't get into all of that, but not to say it's not still there. But now this has morphed into a space of distrust because of allegations that there is no integrity.

Let me just say this. I've always been the type of official who rolls up his or her sleeve. And I say this because with this election stuff, I do roll up my sleeves. I'm not just sitting in my office waiting for the briefing. I want to know, because this stuff is very serious. What is going on?

Everything is being patched, the systems. I sit in on meetings with IT folk. And I'll be honest, sometimes they use those verbiage, that language. I don't what they're saying, but it sounds good to me. But at the same time, I know that they know. These are the experts in the field.

Aside from IT, we deal every single day or every other day with our US Homeland Security folk at CISA. That's the cyber folk who deal with the election space, making sure that every one of our 21 counties also get all of this information. So everyone, election workers are working hard. It's 365 days of the year, 24 hours a day work.

I know that my team, we just had a petition filing deadline for our upcoming primary on June 4th was yesterday. They were working overtime to ensure just the integrity of the petitions being filed. So for any of this going on and all of the misinformation that, oh, there's fraud here and this and this and this. If there's any fraud, it's very, very limited. And if it is out there-- I can only speak in New Jersey-- it immediately gets caught. But there is no widespread fraud in any of the election space.

Folk are working hard through my National Association of Secretaries of State. I was proud to lead it as President. So with that being said, I was there making certain, like other secretaries who are presidents. This association doubles down, triples down, quadruples down on election meetings and making sure the right people, the right experts are presenting to secretaries of state so that the systems and the process is shored up.

So those, ultimately, are challenges. But again, I can speak here, I can speak wherever about election integrity. It's also a matter of having our community. I always tell folk in New Jersey, because we do have a coalition of business folk. We have a coalition of higher ed, faith-based communities, and others-- nonprofs.

Go out into your communities. Be the trusted voices of all of this election information. Give them my team's info. If you live in my county, in Passaic County, give them the Passaic County election info to those folk so that all of this can get dispelled.

Years ago, a simple thing like a polling location not being open on time-- no one would think anything was nefarious. They would say, because these are just the normal things. I'm not saying they're right. A machine-- I'm not saying if it breaks down, that's right.

But these are things that happened elections in 2005. I just used that-- all years ago. And no one was thinking about that and thinking anything was nefarious going on. But nowadays, that's what people are thinking. If a polling location at 6:00 AM isn't open when maybe a poll worker or two car broke down or the bus didn't get them to the location on time, if that's the case. And we have to really dispel all of this.

MARK JEFFERSON: I have one more question. I could ask you questions all day before we open it up. And that is what initiatives are you most proud of as Secretary of State and Lieutenant Governor and the impact they will have on your legacy?

TAHESHA WAY: I have to say I'm just blessed and thankful for all the work that we do as a team at my Department of State. I'll start with that. But truly, the election administration, I really feel has been very gratifying. We went from just regular voting right on election day-- we always had no excuse voting, but we've expanded that out, too.

But now from the tenure, we have automatic voter registration, online voter registration. Those who are serving on parole or probation, they can vote now and not pay any penalties or fees. We instituted in-person early voting. I have the ballot bowl and all the other good initiatives for engagement out there.

I also just look at the legacy, and part of it is who I am as African-American and as a woman. And I say this because I came in and I said, our governor at that time has a majority female cabinet. So guess what? I'm going to have majority directors in my Department of State that are women.

But I also feel the inclusiveness of it all, as someone who's African-American-- making sure that my chief of staff, he is African-American. At the same time, bringing all different races as senior leadership in my deputy space. I look at Lieutenant Governor's side, and all of my staff on the Lieutenant Governor's side are females. And that's how we get the job done.

And so I look at all of that. I look at how we now, through historical, will have a Black Heritage Trail, which will highlight all of the notable Black History within our state. I look at how we have for the 250th, similar to the 19th Amendment, the ability to tell the entire story of New Jersey's historical American Revolutionary time there. And on the LG side, I just feel like the legacy that I really want to leave is of course doubling down in partnership with the governor on women's reproductive health rights.

But also for me, the struggles of the college student-- leaving that legacy, trying to work in ways to alleviate the financial burden. And at the same time, again, the mental health, which is so key and so important of our youth. And that's just my hope.

MARK JEFFERSON: Could everybody join me in thanking the Lieutenant Governor?