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Island Profile: Julia Weisenberg

Julia Weisenberg likes big dogs, and Rita, at 93 pounds, certainly qualifies.

When Julia and her family stopped in a pet store a few years back to “let the kids touch the dogs” and left with a Labrador retriever puppy with the largest paws she’d ever seen, Julia said she knew what she was getting into.

She worked in the corporate world, earned a Ph.D and traveled extensively. Now she’s running for Town Council in the November election. Although it’s her first time running for office, Julia said she knows what she is getting into there as well. Politics, like raising a puppy, requires a special kind of fortitude.

Julia’s father, Bill Romanchuk, made unsuccessful runs for Town Council and Town Justice in the 1980s, and went on to lead a group of local activists who lobbied successfully for decommission of the Shoreham nuclear plant near Riverhead. Julia, who was in kindergarten when her father ran for office, was at his side during his vocal opposition to Shoreham.

After a career in the NYPD, Julia’s father discovered Shelter Island in the 1950s, fell in love, and came upon a man named Hamilton selling property in Silver Beach under an umbrella erected next to his convertible. The contract was scribbled on a piece of paper, and sealed with a handshake. In 1974, Bill and his second wife, Regina, began building a home on the property with the help of Islanders Ed Kramek and Peder Larsen. Romanchuk family photos document the fact that Regina was pregnant with Julia when she helped install sheetrock in the home.

Julia is still enjoying that sheetrock today.

She has two sisters from her father’s first marriage, Lynn who lives in South Carolina, and Lori who lives in Manhattan. Her youngest sister died as an infant of SIDS and her older sister Corinne who lived on Shelter Island, died at 29 after a long illness. Julia graduated in 1992 from the Shelter Island High School.

In elementary school, Julia had speech therapy to help her overcome a stutter, an experience that gave her a glimpse of the vulnerability that disabled people can experience. It motivated her to learn American Sign Language (ASL) in her teens, and go on to formal education in ASL in her 20s.

She earned a B.A. and M.A. in the teaching of English as a Second Language (ASL) at Stony Brook University, and was awarded a Ph.D. in Linguistics. She taught ASL, then went to work for a company that provides telephone services for the deaf using interpreters, eventually becoming the manager of the company’s largest call center in Manhattan.

She said the work brought her in contact with the full range of human experience, from interpreting for Hillary Clinton at a graduation address, to translating and interpreting in the investigation of an operation that virtually enslaved deaf Mexican immigrants in Queens in the late 1990s, forcing them through violence and intimidation to sell trinkets and live in dangerous conditions.

“Deaf people are a cultural minority,” Julia said. “I’m always sensitive to equality and civil rights.”

She thinks Shelter Island town government needs to be more inclusive. “As a town we have to be careful not to exclude working families, or exclude seniors on a fixed income. I’ve also heard people say second home owners shouldn’t vote here. But if you go talk to your [second-home-owning] neighbor, you might be pleasantly surprised to see they really are invested in the community.”

In 2008 Julia was in Moscow working as an interpreter for a group of deaf visitors, when she met Dmitri Kolmogorov. They married and have raised three daughters, Anne, 17, Daria, 15, and Regina, 8.  Although their marriage ended in divorce, they are friendly and Julia said that Dmitri, who recently became a U.S. citizen, told her he’s looking forward to voting for her in his first election.

She got a real estate license last year, and works for Compass Realty of Shelter Island, putting her in touch with realities of renting, buying and building on the East End. She thinks real estate brokers are an underutilized resource, a source of information about a market that’s the foundation of the town’s tax base. “There’s so much money tied up in real estate here, you have to pay attention,” she said. “We don’t want people to build; they want the home that they want. But we have to be really careful.”

She also works for the town FIT Center, Goat Hill Country Club, North Fork Wellness of Cutchogue, and Mill Neck Interpreting Services. She has served on the PTSA board since 2016, now serves on the Water Quality Advisory Board, and attends meetings of the Deer & Tick Committee. She said her volunteer service is motivated by her father’s example.

Julia isn’t satisfied with the way town government currently functions. “How do they come to their decisions?” she asked. “There’s a lack of transparency and they don’t always communicate the values that are leading them to a decision.”

Julia feels the council is not as approachable as it once was, and she’d like to see significant changes that would make work sessions more of a team activity and allow a better balance of evening and daytime town meetings. “It’s not the people [on the board] it’s the accountability,” she said. “So many working Islanders can’t come on Tuesday. If someone comes to the mic, all the town board members should make them feel they are welcome.”

She’s proud of her role in organizing the effort to persuade the North Ferry to add an early boat to help Islanders make train and airport connections, and especially satisfied with the civil and respectful way all sides handled the discussion and resolution in the meeting that decided the matter.

“If only every Town Council meeting could be like that,” she said. “They came to a decision, and they implemented it. Everyone hugged and clapped. It was epic.”

Although Julia is not on the Deer & Tick Committee, she’s responsible for one of the more innovative proposals that group has considered — creating incentives for female hunters.

Twenty-six women attended a DEC-sponsored hunter education class this summer at Mashomack, and while the overall number of hunters continues to decline, the number of female hunters is increasing.

“I’m a licensed hunter, and I’d like to do bow hunting,” said Julia. “My intention is to contribute to culling because I feel that is the best way to control ticks.”

She believes that when it comes to solving problems, Shelter Island has size on its side. She described a recent one-on-one with a person of differing views on the short-term-rental question. “I said to her, ‘Just talk to me, I really want to understand, to hear what you think.’”

They decided to set some ground rules for their conversation — one would speak first, then the other. There would be civility.

“She brought up thoughts I had not considered,” Julia said. “When people are afraid, you can’t mock that. Feelings just are. We concluded that there are other points of view, and there is leeway. We found some sway.”