As he seeks a sixth term, Bergen County Surrogate Judge Michael Dressler wants people to remember the organizing principle of public service in government, at a time when too many find money as a motivation.
People helped him at his most vulnerable time in life, and that’s what drove him to serve the Bergen County public for the last 24 years as the surrogate, a position he describes as the best job he ever had, he told InsiderNJ this afternoon in a Zoom interview (see below).
“In this office, I get to make a positive impact on people’s lives,” Dressler said. “People are coming usually after they have lost a loved one.”
Dressler himself has a story of overcoming adversity. When he was 17 years old, a day after the high school senior prom, he ran down the beach in Seaside Heights, dove into a wave as he had hundreds of times before, and broke his neck.
He went to Holy Name Hospital and received last rites.
But he persevered through a year and a half of rehabilitation, and received his undergraduate degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Through the worst times, he developed a deep appreciation for those others – starting with his family members – his parents and his brother – and the neighbors in his hometown – who helped him recover, and decided he wanted to dedicate his life to public service.
“The people in Cresskill were amazing, and I thought I might have a talent at giving something back,” Dressler said.
He won a council seat at the age of 22. while still a student at Seton Hall University Law School. He graduated in 1979, and defeated an incumbent mayor in 1983, after campaigning door to door in a manual chair.
Dressler served as county counsel for three years, and won the 1996 election for surrogate after Steve Rothman left the post to run for congress. “I was the only Democrat to win that year, the only Democrat in Bergen county for three years,” he recalled.
Over these nearly two and a half decades, he appreciated the confidence Bergen taxpayers have repeatedly expressed when assessing his work. This year, he said, “I want them to remember that we brought the surrogate’s office into the 21st century. When I started in 1997 we didn’t have computers in this office. I think we’ve provided service to the people in a competent and compassionate manner. This office is well run. We have great staff here. All too often the people who work in government don’t get the recognition they should. These people work so hard and are so good and so professional. I’m so proud of them. I hope people realize I’ve been an honest surrogate.”
An admirer of President John F. Kennedy, Dressler celebrated President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory.
“I’m so proud that finally we’ll have someone in that office who cares about people,” he said.
When Dressler met the future President three years ago, he told him, “Hey, pal, we need you,” and Biden responded, “I’m not going anywhere.”
Dressler felt like Biden was a regular guy, and more than that – “I had the feeling that he cares,” the surrogate said.
In the final analysis, “I owe an incredible gratitude to God,” Dressler said. “God has answered my prayers. And my family. My family – you couldn’t have a better support system.” In these divided times, he wants the people to remember to work together, to realize politics as the art of compromise, and to remain committed to service – not money – the example of John F. Kennedy still inspiring him, as it did at the outset, along with those neighbors of compassion and goodwill in his midst that he never forgets.
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