Group works to pack the N.J. political pipeline with women

March 23, 2023 7:14 am

Emerge New Jersey wants to attract more Democratic women to politics. In New Jersey, 42 of 120 state lawmakers are women. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

It is easy to feel when reading or watching the news that our country is devolving into a place we don’t recognize.

South Carolina proposing legislation to use the death penalty for abortion cases. The maniacal rallying around a proven grifter former president. Sometimes it makes me want to reach for a blood pressure cuff.

I have found a salve.

Look on the ground. That’s right. The place with the community organizers, the persistent activists, the behind-the-scenes change makers. They’re assembling, plotting, growing, and ascending into places where their presence has impact.

That is the story of Geri Jannarone, executive director of Emerge New Jersey, an organization with a mission to boost the number of Democratic women leaders from diverse backgrounds in public office.

New Jersey is one of 27 states with chapters in Emerge, a national organization founded over 20 years ago in the Bay Area to help back Kamala Harris in her campaign to be district attorney of San Francisco.

Some numbers from decades before provide perspective. In 1980, there were 809 women in state legislatures across the country, giving them 11% of all seats; in 2023, there are 2,413 (33%). An increase, sure, but a glacial one considering women represent more than 50 percent of the U.S. population.

In New Jersey, out of 120 state legislators, 42 are women.

Geri Jannarone, as executive director of Emerge New Jersey, helps recruit and train women Democratic elected officials.

Jannarone gets the gravity of the mission, but through sheer conversation, she took me to a place of hope in the space of an hour.

“Our mission is to help women in the ‘new American majority,’” Jannarone said. “That’s black, brown, indigenous, LGBTQ+, unmarried, and young women, and all the barriers they face.”

Jannarone is referring to the emerging demographic that will be the majority in the U.S. by 2035. The goal is to train 100,000 women nationally in the new American majority by then.

“We’re well on our way to doing that,” she said. “The data is there. This is not pie in the sky.”

Emerge New Jersey had a win rate of 75% last election cycle and 100% in the primary, on par with Emerge national figures. It counts among its alumni state Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake and Hillside Mayor Dahlia Vertreese.

While touting world-class facilitators as an integral facet of Emerge training, Jannarone notes it mostly distinguishes itself from other fine training programs with its vast network. Emerge makes a point of not abandoning graduates once they become alumni. The ability to introduce a candidate from New Jersey to her counterpart in Michigan or Alabama is central to its success. Plus, since the curriculum doesn’t include policy, Jannarone is happy to connect her alumni with policy experts where needed.

As for nuts and bolts, the training consists of comprehensive work in public speaking, fundraising, media/messaging, campaign strategy, technology, field operations, endorsements, and ethical leadership.

Interested candidates aren’t turned away if they lack financial resources. The program provides scholarship funding and will train them to fundraise to cover the $800 tuition.

The 65-hour hybrid model has also made it more convenient for women with demanding schedules and geographic challenges to partake in the program.

“Women collaborate much, much better than men do,” Jannarone said. “That’s what makes them so effective at governing, their ability and willingness to reach across the aisle. Unlike men do, historically.”

A Brielle resident, Jannarone was a mother and yoga instructor in the public library system when, over a four-year span, the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and the Pulse nightclub shooting put her on a new path. She went from volunteering for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign — “literally taking my toddlers who are now grown women to the town halls and getting yelled at by Tea Party protesters” — to Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, eventually earning the state’s leadership role in the latter.

Shannon Watts, Moms Demand’s founder, “really just put together a Facebook page at her kitchen table,” Jannarone noted.

“And now it’s the largest grassroots activist community in the country. They taught me everything I know about organizing,” she said.

With the troubling election of Donald Trump, Jannarone was propelled to another level of action — from volunteer to paid positions. She has been the campaign manager and political director for U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., director of advocacy and special campaigns for political consultant firm Parano and Associates, and a regional field organizer for Phil Murphy’s 2017 campaign for governor.

Since yoga is still such a big part of Jannarone’s life, and she says she wouldn’t be able to do what she does “in the belly of the beast of New Jersey politics” without it, during COVID lockdown it seemed only natural to do online yoga classes for Emerge on a national level to help ease the stresses of that perilous time.

That’s what’s compelling about Jannarone. As the state leader of Emerge, she is acutely aware of her power, but she wields it in a way that appeals rather than repels. It’s all about who she can bring along, uplift, connect, inform — wholly validated when I asked what brings her immense satisfaction in her job.

“I think recruiting the cohort,” she said. “Meeting these women and hearing their stories and why they got into it. Knowing that I’m kind of stewarding them. It’s providing them a space where they can reveal themselves. I’m not giving them anything that’s not already there.”

It’s worth noting that cultivating a learning space where vulnerability and authenticity can thrive is an often underrated quality at a time when our nation and world are at peak anxiety levels. More of that, please. It breeds hope.

The Emerge New Jersey website provocatively asks, “Why NOT you?”

Blessedly, women are answering with, “Count me in.”

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Nancy Colasurdo
Nancy Colasurdo

Nancy Colasurdo is an award-winning journalist, author, and professional coach. A former Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan, she has won writing awards from the Women’s Sports Foundation and the NJSIAA. In 2019 she was selected to be part of 50 Women Who Can Change the World of Journalism through the nonprofit Take the Lead.