Supporters watch the monitors as results come in at Jack Ciatterelli’s headquarters at the Bridgewater Marriott. (Amanda Brown for New Jersey Monitor)
Claire Swift is a busy working mom. She’s an attorney and mother of three whose kids’ school and sports schedules keep her bouncing all over South Jersey.
Swift has little time for anything else — but felt called to run for public office after the pandemic started, when friends and strangers alike bombarded her Northfield law firm with questions and pleas for help.
“I felt like I had more constituent services coming out of my law office than our local legislators,” Swift said. “The state shut businesses down. A lot of people lost their jobs. People were trying to work on Zoom with their kids home from school. My teacher friends went through such a hard time. But there was silence from our local legislators. We were helping people every day in our law office. I felt like it was time to step up and have some strong leadership in the Legislature.”
So Swift made her first-ever run for elected office — and handily won a seat in the New Jersey Assembly, snagging the most votes of four competitors in Atlantic County’s 2nd District. She’s part of a small army of political newcomers who appear to have ousted incumbents in what became one of the liveliest statewide elections in years.
Indeed, it was a record-setting year for Republican women, with voters last week electing as many as seven female GOP newcomers to the Assembly — the most ever, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University (the Associated Press has still not called some of the races). The previous record was four in 2007, said Debbie Walsh, the center’s director.
“We went from having women make up 25% of the Republican caucus to a third, and that’s a pretty big jump for just one election cycle,” said Alexandra Wilkes, communications director for the NJ GOP.
New Jersey stands at 25th in the country for women’s representation (of both parties) at the state level, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.
The wins in New Jersey come as Republicans have tried to diversify their ranks locally and nationally.
A new political action committee, Women for a Stronger New Jersey, formed in 2019 to grow the number of Republican and independent women in elected office statewide. It spent more than $700,000 to support women in key 2021 races including the 2nd, 8th and 11th legislative districts, said Stacy Schuster, the group’s executive director. The national Republican State Leadership Committee recently launched a Right Leaders Network to recruit and run more female and minority candidates for public office.
One woman GOP leader attributed the gains to campaign issues that fired up women especially.
“A lot of the school board issues just really woke people up — the curriculum, the mask mandates — along with what’s happening during COVID,” said Darlene Shotmeyer, vice chair of the NJ GOP and a Bergen County state GOP committeewoman. “A lot of women are caregivers. Their children are in school, and their parents were in nursing homes that were locked down. A lot of women were just dissatisfied with how Gov. Murphy handled things.”
Walsh agreed that “a piece of it is pandemic frustration.”
But more, Walsh thinks the women benefited from partisan forces that transcend gender — and that underscore the importance of getting women on the ballot.
“It was a very good year for Republicans in New Jersey, and we always say is that if women aren’t running, they can’t take advantage of those good years for their party,” she said.
Thirty women GOP nominees were on the ballot in legislative races in this year’s general election, Walsh added. The record was 35 in 2013, she said.
It was a very good year for Republicans in New Jersey, and we always say is that if women aren’t running, they can’t take advantage of those good years for their party.
– Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics
In a statewide election that may have had one of the lowest turnouts in a century, with just 38% of New Jersey’s electorate voting last week, that low turnout and “enthusiasm gap” likely helped Republican candidates, Walsh said.
“In some ways, more so on the Democratic side, voters are exhausted. The Trump years forced people to pay more attention and get more engaged. After four years of fighting against the daily barrage of tweets and chaos of his election, and then Joe Biden gets elected, everyone just wants a break, and that has implications for voter engagement particularly on the Democratic side,” Walsh said.
“We’ve all forgotten what normal times look like, but in normal times, people don’t really want to engage with government – they just want government to do its job so they can go about their business,” she added.
It’s hard to say what this all means for New Jersey’s citizens. Women for a Stronger New Jersey didn’t push any specific agenda beyond the GOP’s traditional talking points like making the state more affordable and removing “extremism” and partisanship from Trenton.
But representation matters, Schuster said, especially on matters that impact women, who have historically been massively outnumbered in Trenton.
“I never believe that men and women care about different issues, but I do think women come at them from a different perspective and bring different experiences to the table,” Schuster said. “That diversity of perspective and experience is really important. When legislators are talking about an issue and don’t have a critical mass of people with firsthand experience on an issue, the discussion won’t be as robust and the solutions won’t be as good.”
The women GOP newcomers who appear to be headed to the Assembly represent districts from the top to the bottom of the state and come from a variety of backgrounds:
- Claire Swift and her GOP running mate Don Guardian beat incumbent Democratic Assemblyman John Armato to flip Atlantic County’s 2nd District, where there was an open seat when incumbent Democrat Vincent Mazzeo made a failed bid for state Senate. Swift is an attorney who has served as a state deputy attorney general representing the Division of Youth and Family Services.
- Bethanne McCarthy Patrick and Beth Sawyer likely flipped South Jersey’s 3rd District, which covers parts of Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem counties, by defeating incumbent Democratic Assemblymen Adam Taliaferro and John Burzichelli. Patrick is a retired firefighter and emergency medical technician in Pennsville who also owns a restaurant and serves on the Mannington Township Board of Education. Sawyer is a Realtor.
- Marilyn Piperno and Kim Eulner are leading incumbent Democratic Assembly members Eric Houghtaling and Joann Downey in Monmouth County’s 11th District. Piperno is a nutrition coach and fitness professional who also has worked in publishing. Eulner is a Shrewsbury Borough councilwoman and a Realtor who also has worked on Wall Street in commission management.
- Michele Matsikoudis won the seat vacated by incumbent Republican Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (who won a state Senate seat) in the 21st District, which covers parts of Morris, Somerset, and Union counties. Matsikoudis is a New Providence councilwoman and Realtor.
- Vicky Flynn won the Assembly seat in Monmouth County’s 13th District that opened when incumbent Republican Serena DiMaso lost in the primary. Flynn is president of the Holmdel Board of Education.
Seven other incumbent Republican women held onto seats in the Legislature, as well.
In the Senate, voters elected Sen. Holly Schepisi in the 39th District to her first full term in that chamber and re-elected Sen. Kristin Corrado in the 40th. And in a hotly contested race, Republican Assemblywoman Jean Stanfield likely pulled off a win against incumbent Democratic Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego in the 8th District. Addiego, a former Republican, switched parties in 2019, a move that became a central issue in her re-election campaign.
On the Assembly side, voters re-elected Assemblywomen DiAnne Gove in the 9th District; and Nancy Munoz in the 21st; Aura Dunn in the 25th. DeAnne DeFuccio was elected to her first full term in the Assembly in the 39th.
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