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A Woman’s Place? NJ Women Still Scarce at High Levels of Government

Women fared much better in freeholder elections, but female representation far lower than in population overall

ashley bennett
Newly elected Atlantic County freeholder Ashley Bennett

Despite national and state efforts to get more women elected to public office, New Jersey remains underrepresented at the high levels of government, with a net loss of one Senate seat in the state Legislature this past election. Women gained one seat in the state Assembly, although that could be temporary. They fared better in the ranks of freeholders, although female representation in these county boards is far lower than the female population at large.

Still, that could change next year, with women becoming a force in congressional elections. Six female challengers — some of them well-funded — so far have declared for three New Jersey seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“This year has seen a gigantic wave of women getting involved in politics: marching, organizing on social media, and running for office,” said Barbara Lee, president and founder of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which is working for women’s equality in American politics. “Now is an excellent time to be a woman running for office. Voters are hungering for change from the status quo, and women represent that change, in a sea of male — mostly white — elected officials.”

The foundation released a report last month titled “Opportunity Knocks” that was based on survey research and found the current political climate is good for women candidates.

Women must prove their mettle

“That doesn’t mean women candidates can expect to cruise into office,” Lee said. “Even in an environment favorable to outsider candidates, women must demonstrate that they are strong leaders who can get things done in office. In order to succeed, women candidates need to showcase a clear record of accomplishments in their communities, pointing to specific results — creating jobs, passing reforms, or balancing a budget — not just points on a resume.”

New Jersey saw more women outsiders run for the state Legislature this year, predominantly Democrats who ran in Republican strongholds. And while most did better than challengers usually do, none was able to pull off an upset and win.

Unofficial election results show women losing a net of one seat in Trenton for the 2017-2018 session, at least for the moment.

In the Senate, one woman stepped down and a second was defeated, with both replaced by men. Technically, there were 12 women in the upper house prior to the election and there will be just 10 come January, but one of the 12 — Kristin Corrado of the 40th District — only joined the Senate a month before the election to replace a man who resigned over the summer.

In the Assembly

In the Assembly, women gained one seat to hold a total of 26. Four female newcomers were elected, while three women did not seek re-election.

The balance in the Assembly could change, however, depending on who is chosen to replace Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver, who was both re-elected to represent the 34th District and elected lieutenant governor. Oliver cannot hold both positions simultaneously, so Democratic committee members from the Essex and Passaic county communities Oliver has represented will choose an interim replacement for her once she resigns. If they choose a male, that would further decrease women’s proportional representation in the Legislature.

Now, the new Legislature includes 36 women, or 30 percent of the total. That’s significantly less than the female population of New Jersey — 51 percent.

“The last time I looked, New Jersey has a few hundred thousand more women than men and that is not reflected in New Jersey’s Legislature,” said Mary Pat Angelini, a member of the advisory committee of the New Jersey Bipartisan Coalition for Women’s Appointments and former state assemblywoman. “Having had the honor to serve on New Jersey’s first all-women legislative team, I am very disappointed at the most recent trend of fewer women getting elected to the Assembly and Senate.”

While also falling short of equal representation, the number of women representatives on county freeholder boards in 2018 will be a record high of 41, or 30 percent, next year, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, part of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. In another record, 14 are women of color — six black, five Hispanic, and three Asian.

Overcoming insult

Among the winners are two new Atlantic County freeholders: Caren Fitzpatrick and Ashley Bennett, both of whom were inspired by January’s Women’s March and a sexist comment Freeholder John Carman made in response to it. Carman posted a meme on his Facebook page that showed a picture of a woman stirring a pot and writing that asked, “Will the woman’s protest be over in time for them to cook dinner?” Both women won; Bennett faced Carman directly and beat him by 500 votes.

“The 2016 presidential election and the shocking outcome, that was the catalyst for me to get engaged,” Bennett said. She got involved with the county Democratic party, supported the march, and then learned of Carman’s post and decided to run herself. “To see the comments from my own elected representative was so disheartening.”

Bennett is just one of many women who were motivated to run by the results of last year’s election, in which Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but lost the electoral college vote to Donald Trump, who had just weeks before the election been heard on a tape bragging about groping women and was accused of unwanted sexual advances by several women.

“Across the country, women distressed by the 2016 election and subsequent events stepped forward to run for office,” said CAWP Director Debbie Walsh. “New Jersey and Virginia were the first states to hold elections after 2016, and newcomer women were prominent among the winners.”

In Virginia, for instance, a record high of 28 women won seats in the state’s House of Delegates, including the first openly transgender woman, first Latina, and first Asian-American woman. That will bring the state up from a rank of 38th for the proportion of its legislature that is female to 22nd. New Jersey, which had ranked 12th, will drop to 15th, according to CAWP.

Women in the cabinet?

New Jersey’s new governor will have an opportunity to redeem that in his cabinet appointments. Prior to the election, Democrat Phil Murphy told the New Jersey Bipartisan Coalition for Women’s Appointments that his administration would be “rich in diversity” and would put in place a mechanism for tracking progress in appointing women.

So far, Murphy’s “transition leadership team” of 10 has the same record as the Legislature and the state’s freeholder boards: with three women on the team, it’s 30 percent female. There are many other women among the literally hundreds who are serving on several issue-oriented transition committees Murphy has set up.

Just naming women to committees is not enough, though.

“Naming women to committees and task forces and transition teams is fruitless if they are not given the opportunity to voice their opinions and be part of the decision-making process,” Angelini said.

Bennett said there are many reasons for women to have equal representation in government.

“It’s important for women to have role models, to see yourself reflected in government,” she said.

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