New Jersey Women Poised to Double Ranks in State Legislature

NJ_State_HouseWomen could be taking over New Jersey! The legislature, that is.

In this year’s fall elections, 67 women are hoping to either gain or keep their seats in the 120-member state legislature. The Garden State actually boasts a record number of women candidates for the state legislature, according to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University. Thirty-five Democrats and 32 Republican women will be on the November ballot for the legislature, including 15 candidates for the 40-seat State Senate (nine Democrats, six Republicans) and 52 for the 80-seat Assembly (26 Democrats, 26 Republicans). The previous record total number of women candidates was 65, set in 2011. There are currently 35 women total in the Legislature – 24 in the Assembly and 11 in the Senate – meaning women make up just 29.2 percent in Trenton.

State Sen. Barbara Buono is one of those women making strides in New Jersey; unfortunately, it’s not quite the right time for her. For the first time in state history, Democrats nominated a woman, Buono, to oppose Gov. Chris Christie for the governor’s seat. But it’s not like the party was falling over itself to place her on the ballot. Yes, she’s officially the party’s nominee, but Christie is trouncing her in fundraising. And Hurricane Sandy gave him a huge boost in the PR department – the latest Quinnipiac Poll puts the incumbent governor ahead of Buono by 30 points. Christie even leads 57 – 32 percent among women and 62 – 27 percent among men. The Governor currently has a 69 percent approval rate, and a 25 percent disapproval rate. Buono gets a negative 18 – 23 percent favorability, with 56 percent who said they don’t know enough about her to form an opinion. Buono came to speak in front of a class I took in grad school at Rutgers University about two years ago and, unfortunately, I wasn’t impressed.

Christie also has a woman on his flank – Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. Several women are reportedly being considered as potential appointees for the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by the late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat – one being Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver. But Newark Mayor Cory Booker pretty much has the Democratic nomination – and the seat – in the bag

Six candidates so far have filed to replace Lautenberg; Christie named state attorney general Jeffrey Chiesa as Lautenberg’s temporary replacement (Chiesa actually accepted via text message), but Chiesa has no plans to try to keep the seat.

Here are some facts and figures that should be appalling: there has never been a U.S. Senator from New Jersey. The Garden State actually has sent only five women to Congress  — and that is abysmal. It hasn’t elected a female federal lawmaker since Marge Roukema retired in 2003.

A 2012 CAWP study showed that despite gains made in the state in recent years, “male dominance of the party system and control over nominations have not been broken; the structures and culture that historically perpetuated male dominance persist despite women’s recent gains.” The study also noted that the county party system in New Jersey is so strong, it gives county lawmakers an unusual amount of power when it comes to getting people elected to the legislature. To be sure, I have heard female lawmakers in New Jersey say that they had no idea they had to glad-hand so many local party leaders if they were thinking about getting into politics. These local leaders can literally make or break your candidacy.

As in everywhere else in the U.S., women could do a lot of good in state politics – and at all levels, of course – if their ranks were boosted. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, about 1,784 women serve in the 50 state state legislatures in the 2013 legislative session. Women make up only 24.2 percent of all state lawmakers nationwide. Vermont, Colorado and Arizona boast the largest numbers of women – they make 35-44 percent of state politicians there. New Jersey is among the states that rank in the next tier of legislatures for having the second-largest percentage of women in their ranks – women make up 25 to 34 percent of the legislature.

There are several organizations and movements in New Jersey aimed at boosting women’s numbers in government. I attended a conference CAWP’s Ready to Run Campaign Training for Women a few years ago, along with female state lawmakers, consultants, strategists and others working to help boost women’s numbers in all levels of government. The event was aimed at encouraging women to consider running for government and showing them there is a supportive network and environment in the Garden State to which they can look to for help in their political endeavors. It was neither Republican or Democrat in tone – simply providing resources for women interested in pursuing politics. It was, in a word, awesome.

What’s more, New Jersey has what’s considered a part-time legislature – many lawmakers hold down other jobs in addition to their political duties. This could allow for an increased number of younger women to feel like they could feasibly run for office and not completely abandon their family. Many women often feel they can’t get involved in politics while they still have young kids at home because it is too time consuming – and we need the voices of women of all ages to be involved in these important debates.

Women not only have a strong voice that needs to be heard on issues such as health care and education, but on issues such as security, the economy and budget, as well. There’s no question that having more female voices involved – not only at the state and local level, but the federal level, as well – could seriously alter the tone and outcome of these policy debates.

Liza Porteus Viana is a journalist with more than 12 years of experience covering politics. She also covers business, intellectual property and homeland security for a number of media outlets, and is editor of genConnect.com. Like many other moms, she is always trying to find that oh-so-elusive work-life balance as a full-time freelancer with a toddler at home in New Jersey. She previously worked at FOXNews.com as a national and political correspondent, and National Journal as a technology policy writer in Washington, D.C., and her work has appeared in publications such as Worth Magazine, Portfolio, PoliticsDaily, The Huffington Post and Forward Magazine. Liza tweets at @lizapviana and is on Facebook. She also blogs at lizapviana.com.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain CC License

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