The number of women on this year’s primary ballot for the New Jersey Legislature ties a record high since at least the start of the century, though still represents little more than a third of all those who filed to run.
In all, 89 female Democrats and Republicans are seeking their parties’ nomination for Senate and Assembly on June 8, the same number as filed four years ago. Like other states, New Jersey saw the number of female candidates for seats at all levels of government increase following the 2016 presidential election, when many were incensed that Donald Trump won the presidency despite the way he had treated women.
In 2017, a record 78 women won their legislative primaries and ran in the November election, according to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University. But a majority did not win and New Jersey has a lot of ground to make up when compared with other states.
Women account for just 30% of state lawmakers, putting New Jersey 27th in the nation for the proportion of female state legislators in CAWP’s latest ranking. Women may be running in New Jersey, but they are not winning at the rates they do in other states: In 2017, New Jersey ranked 14th; in 2019, the state ranked 19th.
“This is not a great number, it’s not where we should be,” said Lisa Randall, who spent more than three decades in politics, including as a Bergen County commissioner, assemblywoman and head of the state Department of Banking and Insurance. “We made progress in the ‘80’s, but I feel like we’ve stalled a little bit.”
Randall, who’s a member of the Workgroup on Harassment, Sexual Assault and Misogyny in New Jersey Politics convened by Sen. Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) last year, cited the current political climate as one reason why women are turned off by politics.
“The general tenor of politics today can be very negative,” Randall said. “Women ask, ‘Why should I throw myself into that cesspool?’”
Lots of deterrents
There are a number of other reasons why women choose not to run for office. These include underestimating their qualifications to serve and being less likely to be encouraged to do so or be recruited by political parties.
“The party structure makes it harder for women to break in,” said Debbie Walsh, CAWP’s director. A person must curry favor with either the county party chair or county party committee to win the party’s endorsement and preferential party-line placement on the ballot, and the parties’ power is stronger in New Jersey than in most other states, she added.
Walsh noted that this year, two incumbent assemblywomen did not get party support in their reelection bids and a third who is running for Senate did not seek the endorsement after learning she would not receive it. One sitting assemblyman lost the party line in his district.
Bullying and harassment may be another reason. Over the course of several meetings, the Weinberg workgroup heard from women who said they were talked down to, told how to vote or groped by running mates or political party operatives.
“It’s not surprising that women are reluctant to run for office when the environment in New Jersey is so inhospitable for them,” said Julie Roginsky, a Democratic strategist and who is one of several women who said she faced sexual harassment from former Fox News executive Roger Ailes.
“When I first got involved in New Jersey politics 25 years ago, there were an equal number of young men and women engaged,” said Roginsky, also a member of the Weinberg group. “Today, I typically find myself the only woman in ‘the room where it happens.’ That’s because women have been presented with a horrific Sophie’s Choice: Close your eyes and shut up about the myriad ways in which they are mistreated, reviled and abused, simply for being women — or speak up and have your career cut short.”
Several of the women running this year said they have witnessed or been on the receiving end of subtle instances of sexism, including people — some likely well-meaning — who suggest they change their hair or clothes or smile more.
“I have been privy to a few inappropriate comments about a woman’s appearance,” said Emma Mammano, who holds master’s degrees in psychology and counseling and is making a second run for the Senate in Ocean County’s 10th District. “But most of the sexism I see comes in the form of subtle interactions with men who feel entitled to the spotlight, or men who see no problem taking up most of the air in a meeting. There also are men who think their ideas are automatically worthy, whereas woman’s ideas should be questioned and scrutinized.”
Mammano, a Democrat, continued: “Thankfully, there are many men becoming aware of these tendencies and they are working hard to create a new culture of equality. But sometimes it’s hard for them to see themselves clearly unless there’s the mirror of a female colleague there to reflect their behaviors back to them. You can’t know better and do better unless others hold you accountable. That’s why women must be in every room where important decisions are being made.”
Female candidates are often driven by more general issues, but some who are running said their gender gives them a unique perspective needed in the Legislature.
Claire Swift, partner in a law firm and former deputy attorney general, noted that if elected in November, she would be the first woman to represent Atlantic County’s 2nd District in three decades.
“Every woman that encouraged me to run did so because they see our representatives failing to meet the challenge of this moment,” said Swift, a Republican. “Running for office is tough on anyone. But what I have learned from managing a successful small business while running a household with three children is how important it is to be organized, efficient, and deliver on results.”
“The more we elect women, the more we get equitable policies for women and families,” said Christine Clarke, a Democrat seeking the Senate seat in the 26th District based in Morris County. “These policies are going to come up whether or not we are at the table.”
This is Clarke’s second try for a legislative seat, after an unsuccessful bid for the Assembly two years ago. Although she said the campaign she waged with her female running mate in 2019 “moved the needle toward blue,” the 26th District is still a Republican stronghold and she faces an uphill battle in trying to unseat incumbent Republican Joe Pennacchio, who has served in Trenton for the last two decades.
Taking one for the team
Women in New Jersey are not gaining ground in the Legislature because when they are endorsed by party leaders, it is often for seats in noncompetitive districts that would be difficult to win. Both Mammano and Clarke are running in solidly Republican districts. Mammano is running alongside an Assembly ticket that comprises a man and a woman, while both of Clarke’s running mates are women. Likewise, in deep-blue Hudson County’s 31st and 32nd districts, three of four Republican Assembly candidates and one of two Senate candidates are women.
“Sometimes you see when the party wants to look good, they say, ‘We are running women,’ but they’re in places where they don’t have a shot,” Walsh said. “Women will do it and say, ‘I’m going to be a good soldier and take one for the team.’ But you should get something out of it, another position. There needs to still be pressure put on the parties to support women in winnable districts.”
The races for nominations for this year’s legislative seats left vacant by retirements and other factors are more of a mixed bag. Of the four open state Senate seats, only one of 11 candidates running in both parties is a woman. Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle is facing an uphill challenge to win the Democratic nomination in the 37th District because her opponent and fellow Assembly member Gordon Johnson won the backing of the Bergen County Democratic party. Weinberg is endorsing him, as well.
On the Assembly side, though, half of all candidates seeking open seats are women, including all four Democrats in the 37th District and all five candidates from both parties in the 21st District based in Union County.
Both Huttle and Johnson are running to replace Weinberg in the Senate. Weinberg is currently the only woman in one of six leadership roles in both houses. But with two other men giving up their spots due to either retirement or seeking a different office, there is a potential opportunity for more women to hold powerful legislative positions when the new session begins next January.
While more female office holders and office seekers are Democrats than Republicans, CAWP’s Walsh said both parties need to make a greater effort at recruiting women candidates for seats they can win.
“That kind of intentionality is what is needed for real change in the state,” she said. “If we don’t see a major increase in the number of women who run, we won’t see an increase in the number of women who hold office.”