N.J. Attorney General Talks Balancing Law, Family

Paula Dow juggles politics, career, and motherhood with success

You’re a Democrat working in a Republican administration. Is it ever difficult to set aside ideological differences?
I’ve not been challenged to focus on that. I think when Gov. Chris Christie asked me to serve as his attorney general he wanted a person who would help shape this office in the mold of other great attorneys general offices that were for the most part apolitical and focused on getting justice with great passion and efficiency.

What if, for example, your governor decided to repeal the healthcare reform bill and you opposed that?
Every state has had to look at the bill and address it and we are, too, but [we] haven’t made any decision either way. It’s an issue we’re still reviewing and looking at its benefits for the state of New Jersey.

What do you consider to be your greatest professional achievement?
Turning around the Essex County prosecutor’s office, which was at a spiritually low point when I inherited it, and making it into a top-notch prosecutor’s office that is respected throughout the state of New Jersey. And on a parallel note, becoming a mom at the same time is an achievement.

What in your career has been the biggest challenge and the most significant reward?
Managing people as the head of an office is one of the toughest challenges for a prosecutor or in my case attorney general. I was challenged in the last seven years, and now in my new job, with changing morale and imposing discipline in instances where it’s not been well carried out in the past. That’s not a skill set we’re well prepared for in school; you learn and develop it [on the job].

The greatest reward, bar none, is helping victims. I got great satisfaction working with some of the most vulnerable victims encountered in domestic violence and horrific homicide cases that we oversaw in the Essex County’s prosecutor’s office.

How do you balance the challenge of working in a high-level, pressure-cooker field with being a single mother?
With a lot of scheduling. I don’t have much free time to do anything besides work and raise my two boys. And I don’t have a nanny or a housekeeper. For the longest time I utilized the YMCA, which has been phenomenal given my long hours. Now that one child is in high school and the other is almost in junior high, I use the Y in part and most recently hired a tutor who works with my youngest, picking him up from school and helping with homework.

What led you to adopt your second child?
A part of me has always wanted to change a child’s life through adoption. Three of my cousins are adopted and we all grew up in an accepting and blended family. I feel that American families seeking to adopt should look to the many African American children here in the United States who are desperately seeking families of their own. After focusing exclusively on my professional development for the past 20 years, I discovered at age 40 that I loved being a mom and wanted to raise more than one child. I truly enjoy both being a mom and pursuing an important career.

Who or what has been your greatest influence?
My father. He’s a high school grad who, after WWII, was a mail carrier in Philadelphia for 35 years and one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. He’s certainly the best read, and he always challenged me to do more, to think outside of the box, or to try for something I might have thought of as beyond my reach. He always set the bar higher for me than I’d set it myself and challenged me to reach it.

What advice would you give to young women who want to follow a similar career path?
I always tell young people to not limit themselves or close doors—pretty much what my father told me. You have to work hard and definitely must develop strong writing skills. Find a mentor. But they should follow their dreams and pursue their passion, and if they find one closed door, try to open a new one.

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