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NJ Women Still Scarce in Local Politics, Despite Gains on State Level

Women in both parties have to work harder, smarter than men — especially when running for mayor, freeholder, council member

christine whitman
Christine Todd Whitman

A few weekends ago, 18 Democratic women from New Jersey embarked on a six-month program designed to teach them how to run for public office. The group that assembled in a classroom in Woodbridge came close to breaking records for Emerge New Jersey, the local branch of a national organization that prepares women Democrats to run their own election campaigns. For the first time, the three-year-old New Jersey chapter had to reopen enrollment to meet a demand that was double the norm, with more than half of this year’s students signing up after Hillary Clinton lost the presidential race to Donald Trump.

“This happened to every single chapter,” said Emerge executive director Truscha Quatrone. “This year there was an uptick in interest by women to get involved in politics that was tenfold. When Hillary lost women woke up and said, ‘We can’t allow this to happen.’”

Women (and men) who monitor gender in politics agree that Trump’s recorded attitude toward women, coupled with the sometimes successful attempts of an extreme wing of the Republican party to strip away hard-fought women’s rights, have catalyzed thousands of American women to join the ranks of the candidate class. Here in New Jersey the influx can’t come soon enough. According to this year’s Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) report, the state ranks low in the number of women holding local office.

“We’ve done really well on the state legislative level,” said CAWP’s associate director, Jean Sinzdak, of adding women to the political rosters. “In terms of the numbers we’re sort of stagnating at the (county) freeholder and local levels.”

What’s happening locally

New Jersey has made significant progress in recruiting women into state politics over the past decade, moving up to 11th in the nation last year from a perennial rank in the bottom 10 before that. In part that’s because women took advantage of a power vacuum that emerged in 2007 when several Trenton lawmakers were indicted on corruption charges and a few others either retired or died. Wanting to improve the state’s female representation, state leaders of both parties recruited women to run. But the picture gets more complicated at the local and county levels.

Though Essex, Bergen, and Morris counties’ freeholder boards boast rosters made up of slightly more than 40 percent women, Sussex and Warren counties have none. In Ocean County, Virginia Haines serves as the county’s second-ever female freeholder; the first served for two years in the 1970s. At the municipal council and mayoral levels, women fare even worse. When measured county by county, female representation on local councils generally ranges between 21 percent and 28 percent, with outliers in Mercer County (38 percent) and Atlantic and Cumberland counties, both at 13 percent. Cumberland County does not have a single female mayor, and the county with the greatest gender balance — Hunterdon — has only seven female mayors out of 26 total.

Ingrid Reed, a retired director of the New Jersey Project at Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute for Politics and the chair of NJ Spotlight’s board, blames two factors: male-dominated county parties, which in New Jersey act as the de facto candidate selection arm of local politics, and the fact that women notoriously wait to be asked to run for office instead of showing the confidence needed to volunteer.

New Jersey politics are so “county-dominated,” Reed said. “(And) you have men selecting whose turn it is to be mayor or run for local government.”

The municipal picture is slightly different, she says. When a city isn’t ruled by party patronage, women have to present themselves as a candidate. This may be easier in bigger cities, where the political and power structure are more clear than in a smaller town.

Sexism at play in politics

As evidenced by the 2016 presidential election, female candidates everywhere tend to face gender barriers that men don’t. Former Gov. Christine Whitman says she encountered bias constantly when she ran for office in the 1980s and felt she had to prepare herself far better for debates and understand the issues much more deeply than her male opponents.

“You saw with Hillary they went after her hair, what she wore, and the fact she has ‘cankles’,” said Whitman, who crossed party lines to support Clinton last year. “When I ran they wrote about my hair, the pearls I wore …”

However, when she sat on Somerset County’s freeholder board, she showed her male colleagues what women can bring to the job.

“In my first elected office I told them I was going to miss a meeting because my daughter had an event and you could see the eyes roll. ‘What do you expect, it’s a woman?’ Then they started going to events too because they’d always wanted to … (but it wasn’t) the manly thing to do.”

More than 30 years later, political discrimination against women continues unabated in New Jersey. When Milly Silva (an NJ Spotlight contributor) ran for Lt. Gov. with Barbara Buono in 2013, not only was party support tepid, Hudson County’s GOP chair told the press, “It’s like picking my secretary.”

Silva says she heard about the same types of disparaging remarks made by two elected male leaders in New Jersey after Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington. They brought her right back to 2013.

“There’s so much work left to be done. There’s this implicit bias among people in a privileged position whose job it is to serve the public good,” she said. “If they can’t check their sexism how can they serve the majority of people in this state who’re women?”

However, not every female candidate says she’s experienced a cold male shoulder. State Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth), who broke gender barriers as a child by joining an all-male hockey team, says she never felt discriminated against.

“In Monmouth County we’re very pro-woman,” she said, before enumerating the county’s two female freeholders and a list of mayors. The state’s Lt. Gov., Kim Guadagno, hails from Monmouth as well.

Why women?

In addition to providing representation that reflects the population, women govern with a greater focus on equality, transparency, consensus, and marginalized communities, said Sinzdak.

Both research and anecdotal evidence back up this claim, and by way of example, Sinzdak points to groundbreaker Bella Abzug, who represented Manhattan’s Upper West Side in Congress from 1971 to 1976.

“In the 1970s, Bella Abzug was denied a credit card as a sitting member of Congress. She then got the Equal Credit Opportunity Act passed so that women have an equal chance to get a mortgage, car, or credit card,” recalls Sinzdak.

“It doesn’t matter how far we get in women’s lib, women are looked at as primary caregivers. We learn to balance early on and we learn to multitask in ways that men don’t,” agreed Whitman. “Women do have a different way of prioritizing and problem solving. We have different life experiences. Today’s problems are too great for any one group of people to have all the answers.”

How to prep

Through the Emerge class, women learn the “soup-to-nuts” of campaigning, says Quatrone. That includes everything from fundraising to debate prep, understanding local government and staging a field day.

“Women have to thoroughly know the issues,” she said. “Many times in debates you can expose your competition by letting your audience know they don’t have any idea and you do. Knowing how to create your message and stay on message comes from understanding the issue, and if you watch men run for office they aren’t anywhere near as prepared.”

CAWP is running its own prep course for both Democratic and Republican women on March 10-11. The Ready to Run Campaign Training for Women will cover digital outreach, campaign logistics, and media training and starts with a half-day add-on for women of color.

On the national scene

Emerge New Jersey’s 2017 class sets records for one important reason beyond its count: 60 percent of its students are under 35. Advocates for women’s rights say that if Trump’s victory contains a silver lining, it’s that women of all ages may come back together to fight for feminism — a word younger women tend to shun. Clinton’s generation of feminists worry that never having lived through the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s, millennials have taken their rights to birth control, abortion, credit card accounts, maternal leave, and the like, for granted.

Having watched an admitted sexual predator win the presidency and an aggressively anti-abortion governor fill the role of vice president, millennials may now be ready to talk to baby boomers instead of refusing to vote for them. Likewise, many old-guard feminists appear to be ready to listen.

“I have been frustrated with younger women because until now they never realized the rights we fought to obtain could be taken away from us,” said Quatrone. “But after this past election they are realizing, ‘Oh you can lose rights.'”

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