Progressives in Middlesex County Renew Battle Against Gender Rule in Primaries

Colleen O'Dea | February 7, 2020 | Politics
Some New Jersey counties still follow old law requiring one man, one woman in each district on county party committees
Credit: ShuaiGuo from Pixabay
The one-man, one-woman law dates back to the time of the adoption of New Jersey’s current state constitution in 1947.

With less than two months until the deadline to file for this year’s primary elections, a group of Middlesex County Democrats is back in court, pressing their challenge against what they say is an outdated state law requiring the membership of county party committees to be split evenly between men and women.

Central Jersey Progressive Democrats (CJPD) last year went to state Superior Court and won the right to allow two candidates of any gender or sexual orientation to run together for seats representing their voting districts on the Middlesex County Democratic Organization, contrary to a decades-old state law requiring district slates to include one male and one female candidate. In 1997, a judge found the law to be unconstitutional but it remains on the books and at least some counties continue to follow it.

Last year’s ruling by Mercer County Assignment Judge Mary Jacobson was preliminary, so CJPD has gone back to court to seek a permanent decision allowing any pair of candidates to seek committee seats in Middlesex.

“The court’s relief allowed me to run for and win this office free of discrimination,” said Kamuela N. Tillman, a CJPD candidate who is a plaintiff in the suit and won her committee seat last year. “We want to make sure that the door remains open for future women and non-binary candidates.”

Effort to boost participation by women

The one-man, one-woman law dates back to the time of the adoption of New Jersey’s current state constitution in 1947 and initially was put in place as an effort to include more women in politics at a time when few were involved. But CJPD asserts that law now does more harm than good, preventing two women from serving together in the same district and denying anyone who does not identify as either male or female the ability to run for the committee.

Not everyone agrees. Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said the issue is complex and any change in the current law needs to be “very thoughtful” to avoid diluting women’s power in county committees, which decide who gets party endorsements in local, county and state elections.

“It’s not a perfect solution, but I fear the consequences of backsliding,” Sinzdak said of the one-man, one-woman committee law. “In general, women are still underrepresented in politics. Structurally, this is one of the only places where women’s involvement is built into the process. It would be a shame to lose that.”

Sinzdak said that of the 42 county chairs in New Jersey — one for each party in the state’s 21 counties — just nine are held by women, five Democrats and four Republicans. She fears that without the law, county-committee membership could be dominated by men because many districts would elect two male representatives.

“We still have a long way to go,” Sinzdak said. “Women are still not equally represented throughout all offices. Until we get to that point, I still see this as a powerful tool.”

But Laura Jill Leibowitz, who won her committee seat representing the Possumtown area of Piscataway along with another woman, said that if the gender rule had been applied in Middlesex last year, her district now would be “represented by someone wholly on the basis of their sex,” rather than the two top vote getters.

CJPD’s legal action only looks to prevent Middlesex County from enforcing the law and not, at the moment, overturning it statewide.

“We continue our push to allow women and non-binary candidates to run free of discrimination for all future elections in Middlesex County” and focus only on that county “for now,” said attorney Yael Bromberg, who is representing CJPD.

Practices vary from county to county

A 1997 ruling by a Superior Court Judge in Burlington County led many counties to remove the male/female committee requirement from their balloting. In that case, Judge Harold Wells found a requirement that the vice-chair of each county committee “be of the opposite sex of the chairperson” was both gender discrimination and an infringement on parties’ rights to self-govern. While not specifically ruling on the requirement that a man and a woman representing each district on the committee, the judge invalidated the entire statute.

Last April, the director of the state Division of Elections sent a memo to county clerks reminding them of Wells’ decision — in the case known as Hartman v. Covert — and urging the clerks to consult with their county counsels on how to properly format their primary ballots. There is no uniform statewide ballot; each of the 21 county clerks drafts the format and language of the ballots used in their counties.

Committee members are elected in the primary, which this year falls on June 2. The filing deadline to appear on the ballot is March 30.

“Most clerks do open up the county committee so it is a ‘vote for two,’ but some do still have the one-man, one-woman rule,” said Paula Sollami Covello, the Mercer County clerk and vice president of the Constitutional Officers Association of New Jersey. “It’s really based on an interpretation of the law. Basically, the county clerks rely on their county counsel.”

Mercer, Cape May, Cumberland, Hunterdon and Passaic counties are among those that have removed one-man, one woman language from their ballots.

County committees play a critical role in the political process by deciding who gets the county line. That means the Democratic or Republican party endorses candidates for positions ranging from town council to county freeholder to state senate and governor. In primary elections, where turnout is typically lower and dominated by party faithful, the candidate who gets the party line often wins.

CJPD, a grassroots group founded in the wake of the 2016 election, has been challenging the strong Democratic organization in some parts of Middlesex and won a number of seats on the county committee there last year.

Kevin McCabe, chairman of the Middlesex County Democratic Organization, announced late last month that the organization will not require candidates to run as male or female. Elaine Flynn, the county clerk, did not return a request for comment on Thursday.