Diversity in N.J. Legislature improves in 2022, but still doesn’t reflect the state

White men continue to be overrepresented in the state Legislature

By: - January 11, 2022 7:51 am

(Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

When Shama Haider — soon to be a freshman assemblywoman representing Bergen County — arrived at the Statehouse Annex on West State Street in Trenton for orientation, she was giddy with excitement.

But Haider is not excited just because she’ll get to push for policies that matter to her, like environmental protection and transportation, or because she’ll learn more about the inner workings of Trenton. 

“There were six of us standing there, and all six were people of color. I thought it’s a fantastic thing and I hope it continues because having us in the conversation is important. This is a door that opened for us for other people of color to follow,” said Haider, one of two women who are the first Muslims elected to the New Jersey Legislature. 

Shama Haider said it was important to have diverse representation in the Legislature for one of the most diverse states in the nation. (Courtesy Shama Haider)

The body will better represent the diversity of the state once Haider and 15 other newly elected officials are sworn in Jan. 11 at noon. And while that shift is important — there will be a few “firsts” in the Senate and the Assembly — the Legislature will still be far from representative of one of the most diverse states in the nation. 

“It’s nothing to brag about, but it’s a penchant for acceptability. We’d all prefer our Statehouse to look like what the state looks like,” said Saladin Ambar, a political science professor at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers. 

Of the 120 senators and members of the Assembly in the new Legislature, about 70% are white, compared to 76% in the current Legislature, according to data from the Office of Legislative Services. Fifty-five percent of the state’s population is white, according to census figures.

Black representation is at 15%, roughly equal to the state’s population. 

Women make up about 51% of the state’s population but just 34% of the new Legislature (up from 32%). Half of the female lawmakers are women of color.

Asian representation will see the biggest jump on Tuesday — up from 2% to 5%. Latinos will account for 8% of the Legislature after picking up one seat in the November election.

Still, the two most powerful positions — senate president and assembly speaker — will continue to be held by white men.

“There has to be an intentional effort to recruit and support a diverse pool of candidates. But then there’s this whole other hidden process, where it seems like a group of elected men, mostly white, got together to talk about who the next senate president would be in a diner. So we need to put a big sunlight on some of these processes to call attention to what’s happening,” said Jean Sinzdak, of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers. 

The Garden State isn’t exactly the easiest place to be elected as a woman — or a member of any marginalized group. Down-ballot voting and powerful party machines are hurdles for candidates running without the backing of county-based political parties, which are largely chaired by white men. 

With four additional women representatives, the new Legislature will be 18th in the nation when it comes to accurate female representation. Nevada has the only state legislature with more than 50% women representation, according to CAWP. 

“This was a good year for Republican women across the country, and that really played out here in New Jersey,” Sinzdak said. “In a state considered solidly blue, it’s an interesting phenomenon. But with that jump, we certainly are improving and trending in the right direction of parity.” 

Women aren’t a monolith, she noted, so diversity in representation brings fresh perspectives on policy issues. Women’s economics, social safety, and personal life experiences may not have been as historically represented as they will be now. 

This change didn’t happen overnight, she said. It took community involvement and party backing, and that’s finally helped drive Asian American and Pacific Islander representation this year. 

For the first time in the state’s history, there will be Muslim representation in Trenton, and the first Asian American women. Sadaf Jaffer, a Democrat representing the 16th district in the Assembly, will join Haider as the Legislature’s first Muslims.

Still, Asians and Latinos remain hugely underrepresented. Latinos make up nearly 22% of the state population and Asians, 10%.

“It’s an honor and I’m very excited to be the first East Asian, but it’s also a wake-up call that out of 120 legislators, only six are AAPI members,” said Ellen Park, who won an Assembly seat in Bergen County’s 37th district along with Haider. 

Ellen Park will be sworn in Jan. 11 as the first Korean-American woman in the state Legislature.

Park immigrated from South Korea in 1978, when she was six years old. When she attended law school at Hofstra University, she said, she discovered the lack of Asian Americans involved in politics and law. After holding voter drives and becoming vice president of the school’s Asian American Law Student Association, she was “hooked on politics” and became a councilwoman in Englewood. 

She believes Asians and other immigrant groups have trouble breaking into politics because of the “immigrant culture to get up, put your head down, and work, work, work.”

Ambar agreed there’s been a lack of representation by Asian Americans in politics, but nationally, he noted a trend toward improvement. He pointed to Michelle Wu, Boston’s first Asian American and woman mayor, and South Asian politicians like Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal.

“It’s the second- or third-generation that often decides, ‘I have a stake in this country, no matter where I’m from,’” he said. “I think we see that’s how it’s working now in the immigrant community.” 

How to continue the trend

Park hopes her presence as a Korean woman will have an effect on her multicultural community, which is more than 17% Asian, according to the census.

Park and Haider both said voting engagement is a problem. Haider took her family to register to vote this year, and thinks they may have considered voting sooner if they saw more people like themselves in government. 

“It’s not just about rallying behind me … They need to come out to every election, and know that just because someone is non-Korean doesn’t mean they don’t have their best interests. We need to emphasize the importance of voting and all local elections, not just the ones with Asian candidates on the ballot,” Park said. 

Political experts agree that representation has an effect on getting more people to run: When voters see people who look like them in positions of power, they naturally can imagine themselves in those roles, too. But this requires support from New Jersey’s political bosses.

Ambar said the “clubbiness” of New Jersey’s political parties has historically hurt women and minorities. Still, he’s seen opportunities seized by people of color who are taking the chance to run. He pointed to Eagleton’s Center for Youth Political Participation, which prepares students to run for office. People need encouragement to run, he said, and that should happen through educational institutions.

“We’re seeing a demographic shift in the young people participating in politics. Young people are hungering to make a difference and they’re not just named Smith and Jones anymore,” he said.

Sinzdak said she worries the pandemic will have untold effects on women running for office. Child care and lower pay are already pulling working moms out of the workforce, and those hurdles are the exact reasons women choose not to run, or aren’t recruited at the same rates as men.

“It goes back to intentionality. We see women step up and throw their hats in the ring — we see what happened with Nia Gill standing up — but we still need more women to be supported,” Sinzdak said.  

New Jersey’s political leaders chose Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) as incoming senate president — replacing Sen. Stephen Sweeney — during a meeting at a New Jersey diner. Afterward, Gill (D-Essex) briefly challenged Scutari for the position. A Black woman, Gill gained the support of social justice advocates and residents calling for a person of color to be seated in a position of power, but Scutari emerged as Democratic senators’ choice.

“The interesting thing is that when the status quo is disrupted, that’s the most opportune time to talk about alternatives and how to change the structure, and they didn’t do that at all,” she said. “They squandered it. That intentionality didn’t come into play at all.”

Haider has high hopes for what her being the first Muslim lawmaker in her district could mean. When she emigrated from Pakistan 40 years ago, she said her new neighbors didn’t know what it meant to be Muslim, and she didn’t imagine she would ever run for office. Now, it’s a priority to find more people like her to join her in Trenton.

“It’s not enough anymore for my son or daughter to be a physician or an engineer or run a business,” Haider said. “They have to be part of the political process.”


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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.