Jennifer Williams, who narrowly won a seat in a crowded race for Trenton City Council, is the first transgender council person in New Jersey. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Williams)
From Florida’s notorious “don’t say gay” law to bathroom bans to the controversy over new sex ed standards in New Jersey schools, Jennifer Williams has felt a mounting alarm at policies and proselytism that demonize the transgender community.
So last year, the lifelong Trentonian followed the advice of a slogan she saw on a t-shirt supporting the Victory Fund, which helps put LGBTQ candidates in public office: “Don’t get mad. Get elected.”
“If you want representation, you need to be in the room, you need to be part of the discussion, and you need to be part of the decision, more than being a citizen who votes and a citizen who advocates,” Williams said.
Sunday, Williams made history when she was sworn in as the Trenton City Council’s first LGBTQ member — and the first transgender person elected to any municipal council statewide.
Her win seems all the more remarkable considering the history of homophobia in Trenton politics.
A former council member made international headlines in 2020 for her slur-riddled rant against the city’s gay mayor Reed Gusciora. And one of Williams’ opponents in her city council race was a New Black Panther Party activist known in part for his homophobic rant at a 2021 political rally outside Trenton City Hall.
Williams’ win struck some as surprising, too, because she’s a Republican in a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans three to one.
“It’s kind of a family joke that I have a ‘very particular set of skills’ like Liam Neeson — I’m a person who is able to advocate to Republicans or conservatives about LGBTQ issues and urban issues,” she said.
Besides Williams’ win, Gusciora easily won reelection, snagging almost 71% of 8,200 votes cast in a four-way race.
“On the campaign trail when we were knocking on doors, the No. 1 issue people had was: ‘Are you going to be able to get along with everyone else on council, respect our city, and not embarrass us anymore?’” Williams said.
Gusciora agreed most residents don’t care about the sexual orientation of their elected officials.
“Like an 80-year-old woman in a Baptist church I visited — she grabbed me as I was walking down the aisle and said, ‘I don’t care what you do in your bedroom, I just want my streets fixed,’” Gusciora said.
Another openly gay candidate is fighting to join Williams on the council. Kadja Manuel was one of nine candidates vying for three at-large council seats. While he came in sixth place in November’s election, he and two other candidates successfully pushed for a runoff election, now set for Jan. 24, because no candidate had won at least 50% of votes, as required.
A nail-biter of a race
Williams is Trenton’s Republican municipal chair and has been a member of the city’s zoning board for 14 years. On the city council, she now represents Trenton’s north ward, a central swath of the 8-square-mile city that runs from the Delaware River to the city’s northern edge.
Her path to public office came with plenty of obstacles.
She placed first in the nonpartisan race in November, snagging 33% of 1,775 votes cast in her ward. But a judge ordered a runoff election because no candidate had received at least 50% of the votes. Voting machine failures plagued polling places across Mercer County on Election Day.
Williams won the runoff election, too — by a single vote, after election officials cleared deficiencies with a few mail-in ballots. Her opponent, Algernon Ward Jr., has asked for a recount, and a hearing is set in state Superior Court for Jan. 11.
Trenton’s city council is Williams’ first elected post, although it wasn’t her first try for a public office. Williams ran for a seat in the New Jersey Assembly in 2019 but lost to Democratic incumbents Anthony Verrelli and Verlina Reynolds-Jackson, who had served on Trenton’s council herself for eight years.
On the campaign trail when we were knocking on doors, the number one issue people had was: ‘are you going to be able to get along with everyone else on council, respect our city, and not embarrass us anymore? – Jennifer Williams, new Trenton city council member
On the campaign trail when we were knocking on doors, the number one issue people had was: ‘are you going to be able to get along with everyone else on council, respect our city, and not embarrass us anymore?
– Jennifer Williams, new Trenton city council member
A ‘public face’ for the LGBTQ community
Williams has long advocated for the LGBTQ community, working to get legislation passed to protect gay and transgender people, including a 2020 state law that banned “gay or trans panic” as a criminal defense in homicide cases.
But municipal politics isn’t normally a place where issues specific to the LGBTQ community arise. So as she starts her two-year term, Williams has different things on her mind, like the city’s dismal 39% homeownership rate and 27% poverty rate, its dilapidated water system, its pollution and ubiquitous lead pipes, and so much more.
She’d only been sworn in a day when she began meeting with residents and trying to help one get a “blind child” sign to alert drivers to drive safely on their street.
“I was born here, I was raised here, and witnessing the decline of my city over all these decades with just the basic functions of government — not passing budgets, not approving tax levies that are necessary for our school system and legally required and sewer/water bonds to improve and maintain our water system — it got to the point where I knew I couldn’t just stay on the sidelines,” she said.
Still, while she doesn’t feel like an LGBTQ torch bearer, Williams acknowledges the responsibility she carries with her pioneering win. She hopes to be a “public face” who shows others in the LGBTQ community that they can lead and succeed in public service.
“That shouldn’t be a big thing, but I’m not naïve. Hopefully this becomes routine enough that when people see me they can maybe think of their neighbor across the street or their sister or their brother or someone in their life who they know who’s LGBTQ — and if they don’t already accept and affirm them, hopefully I will make that easier,” she said.
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