In Love with Helping People | Meet PPAG’s Christina Zuk

Christina Zuk‘s bio lists kickboxing as a pastime, and opponents should take the hint. Behind a magnetic smile is a tenacious combatant—one whose early professional successes at PPAG have pushed her name to the must-watch lists for Jersey politicos.

PPAG’s Dale Florio rates the addition of Zuk to the firm’s talent roster as a generational connection. “She gives us that look into the young rising set of Democrats who are now on the scene in New Jersey—especially in the Murphy Administration,” he said. “The new governor has recruited many talented young people, and this is Christina’s peer group.”

But among colleagues, this fighter is also known for an interest in helping others climb—even those on opposite sides of the aisle. Zuk is most interested in crashing remaining gates for talented female leaders. As the Executive Vice President of the New Jersey Young Democrats, she’s a natural booster for progressive women, but she’s not calling for the unilateral defeat of Republican women.  She’s also a founding member of RunWOMENserve, an exciting new Political Action Committee (PAC) announced recently at the New Jersey State House by Former Senator Diane Allen. Its goal is to provide financial support for women newly running for the State Legislature, no matter their party affiliation.

In her way of thinking, when qualified women from both parties ascend to leadership, the country is better. There’s room for everyone. It’s this realism that’s shaped her professional effectiveness on Governor Murphy’s transition team and as a longtime advocate for nurses—her mother’s longtime profession.

According to Zuk, idealism and the reality of the political process aren’t opposites. “You’re not going to change the whole structure of how the political world works overnight,” she argues.  “You have to learn that yes, politics can be a blood sport—you may not always like the way legislation happens—but I’ve found that you can’t have an impact unless you engage.”

It Gets Real in Bayonne

In order to understand Zuk’s ability to balance conviction with practical outcomes look no further than the rough-and-tumble political tradition of her hometown—Bayonne, New Jersey—the city with a French name and French-ish flag whose ancestral roots trace back to Italian, Irish, and Polish migrations. It’s a town built on negotiation and compromise—block by block.

Early in life, she saw politics in its primal form—ferociously tribal. With elections nearly always running blue, the main event is the Democratic primary. As a girl from Bayonne, she couldn’t help but be well aware of the consequences of winning and losing, and of the value of being part of the process.

A Lifeline for Seniors

As a teenager, the quiet honor student and band member wasn’t eyeing a career in City Hall or Trenton. While the whirr of her politically charged city was an unavoidable fact of life, she was no activist.  “I wasn’t one of those girls that was leading walkouts or protesting anything.”

But with a father working in City Hall under the legendary mayoralty of Joe Doria, she took a chance to work in Bayonne’s Office on Aging under a national pilot program to bring meals and services to low-income seniors.  The hook was set.  “I didn’t realize it then, but I caught the bug. I saw firsthand that government can do a lot to help really vulnerable people – and I wanted to be part of that.”

The Monday check-in calls to hundreds of residents in HUD housing were transformative. The skill of speaking clearly and slowly became second nature, but listening became the skills she expertly honed with each dial.   “Many of them were living alone and without family, and sometimes we would be their only communication. I fell in love with helping people.”  The initial, twenty-hour commitment stretched in a full-time summer job that extended to her junior year in college.

Listening Pays Off

As the girl from a modest, working-class home, college was no guarantee, and graduate school was often a far reach for kids from Bayonne. In the end, she’d pay the bills for undergraduate and graduate degrees, and earn an entry-level spot coordinating constituent service for a rising Democrat, State Senator Barbara Buono. Once again, Zuk’s mission was to listen and shepherd hundreds to the right floor in government’s tower of services.  Buono noticed.  She was great with constituents and knew how to build relationships, but she was needed elsewhere—eventually promoted to the Senator’s Chief-of-Staff.

Today her work for PPAG clients reflects much of the patient, detailed interaction culled from hours of listening. “I enjoy building genuine relationships with people. I don’t just see it (public affairs) as a means to an end.”

Eventually, Florio, with a constant eye on the landscape for under-the-radar talent, would see it too. “I think that’s one of the most appealing things about her—as I watch her interact with people of all ages and experience levels—you can tell that she is not looking to have the last word, she is not looking to be the loudest person in the room, she’s not looking to draw attention to herself. And because she’s that way she draws respect and attention to herself and it works for her. That’s just who she is.”