N.J. lawmakers brag of leading a diverse state. But legislature is overwhelmingly white

54% of N.J. residents identify as white. In the Legislature, the figure is 76%.

By: - July 28, 2021 8:00 am

The vaccine policy will apply to lawmakers, staffers, and district office employees, and there will be no testing option. (Photo by Dana DiFilippo)

New Jersey officials boast that they lead one of the most diverse states in the nation, but white men are still making most of the decisions in Trenton.

And while the diversity of the chamber’s members has risen over the last 10 years, most communities still aren’t accurately reflected in the state Legislature.

“It’s changing, I think,” said Jean Sinzdak of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University. “There’s a real recognition that there needs to be a lot more effort.”

Here’s where we stand: In New Jersey, 54% of residents identify as white. In the Legislature, the figure is 76%. The 20 Black lawmakers account for 16% of the legislature, while Black residents make up about 15% of the population. The numbers for Latinos and Asians are abysmal: They make up 21% and 11% of the population, but hold just 8% and 2% of legislative seats, respectively.

And despite the state population being roughly 51% female and 49% male, the Legislature is 68% male.

If the numbers reflected the state's population, there would be 60 women, 25 Latino lawmakers and at least 13 seats held by Asian representatives.

"It's a fundamental fairness to have a democracy that represents you. You want the government to look like the people it serves," said Sinzdak. "These different perspectives ensure more voices are heard, and more people will feel like government is for them."

Some communities have gained representation over the last three decades — in the late '80s, the Legislature was 93% white and male — but the body remains stubbornly unreflective of New Jersey's population. New Jersey's three most powerful elected officials are white men (all of Irish descent): Gov. Phil Murphy, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin.

Recently, Sweeney had a back-and-forth with New Jersey Policy Perspective President Brandon McKoy, who said a budget process controlled by three white men "upholds systemic racism." At first Sweeney called the comment offensive and racist, and questioned whether he was being called racist because of his Irish descent. The next day, he conceded to NJ.com that the Legislature should "strive to do better."

Women on the rise

The Garden State stands out for one thing: The women in the legislature are largely from diverse backgrounds, with women of color making up 53% of female lawmakers.

"We excel at the diversity of women, and it's really impressive," Sinzdak said.

It's one of just three states with a Black woman lieutenant governor, Sheila Oliver, who was also the first Black woman to serve as Assembly speaker.

For a long time, Sinzdak said, New Jersey was in the bottom 10 states for women representation. Major corruption scandals in the 2000s led to the ousting a handful of legislators, whose seats became available and were taken by women. Mims Hacket was replaced by Mila Jasey and Alfred Steel by Elease Evans after a 2007 bribery scandal ensnared the two men, while Daniel Van Pelt was succeeded by DiAnne Gove following Van Pelt's arrest in 2009.

"We probably wouldn't be where we are today if that didn't happen, because it set up a path for more women to come in, and many of those women are still serving today," Sinzdak said.

Now, according to CAWP data, New Jersey is smack-dab in the middle: 25 out of 50 states.

The number is growing. No Asian woman has ever served in the state Legislature, but that will likely change after November, when all 120 legislative seats are on the ballot. At least five Asian women won primary contests, adding to the already record-breaking number of women running.

"That would be amazing if we get more inclusive," said Sen. Teresa Ruiz, (D-Essex), who in 2007 became the first Puerto Rican woman elected to the Legislature. "It's not just about winning, it's about having a voice at the policy table that wasn't there before."

How to improve the demographics

Advocates for accurate political representation say there's more to be done to diversify the Legislature.

Amy Torres, president of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, said there are "huge swaths of immigrant groups who get no attention." She pointed to the Middle Eastern and North African communities in Paterson, who do not have members of their communities representing them. And there are no openly gay members of the Legislature, Torres noted.

"Unless you have staff on the ground with lived experiences, those groups don't get targeted at all and never grow their power and influence because no one ever asks them. These communities are rendered completely invisible," she said.

It's changing, I think. But there's a real recognition there needs to be more effort.

– Jean Sinzdak, Center for American Women in Politics

A major step to increasing the number of women in the Legislature, Sinzdak said, is a recently-passed law allowing campaigns to pay for child care expenses. Removing that financial burden could allow more parents, women and low-income residents to run for office, she said.

Critics of New Jersey's political party system often chide party bosses for favoring incumbents and recruiting mostly white men, saying bosses make it difficult for women and minorities to get elected. Ruiz and Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson) said party officials need to work to diversify their colleagues when they can.

"So long as we have the line in New Jersey, the parties have to be willing to embrace qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds so people see themselves in the composition of the folks writing the laws for 9 million people with shared experiences," Mukherji said.

The fastest growing communities of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders haven't seen a high level of engagement in state politics, partially because it's newer to New Jersey, but also because few people in state government reflect them. Mukherji, the second South Asian to be elected to the Legislature, thinks the number could double in November. Then New Jersey will finally have an AAPI caucus.

"It's really encouraging and exciting. We're moving in the right direction, but we can and must do better," he said.

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.