There will be two or three fewer women in the New Jersey Legislature when the new session begins in January. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)
The New Jersey Legislature will lose some momentum in achieving gender parity when its new session begins in January.
Women will hold 41 out of 120 seats, at most, when lawmakers are sworn in, down from 43 in the current session. That’s just about a third of the Legislature, despite women making up half of New Jersey’s population.
There will be 10 female state senators, down from 11 now, and potentially 31 women in the state Assembly, down from 32. Most of the winners in last week’s legislative races have been determined, though the Assembly race in 8th District remains too close to call, with Democrat Andrea Katz a few dozen votes ahead of Assemblyman Brandon Umba (R-Burlington).
White male politicians will continue to make up a disproportionate percentage of the Legislature, as they historically have.
Jean Sinzdak is the associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Ahead of last week’s legislative elections, the center was bracing for a loss of female representation, so the election results weren’t a huge surprise, she said.
New Jersey currently ranks 21 out of 50 for gender parity in state legislatures nationwide, but could drop a few ranks once all the elections are called, Sinzdak said.
“We know how hard it is to achieve progress, so anytime you see that backsliding, it makes you raise your eyebrows,” Sinzdak said.
A recent study by the center found women hold just 30% of elected positions across all levels of government in New Jersey. The state Legislature has the highest proportion of female representation, while the state’s congressional delegation has the lowest — two out of 14 members. Women hold less than a third of municipal offices statewide.
Gender parity in the Legislature is worse when broken down by party, Sinzdak noted. In the coming session, female representation will again be concentrated in the Democratic Party, where women make up 40% of the caucus. On the Republican side, that number is less than 20%, according to the center.
Sinzdak said women face multiple hurdles in the political world, like typically being seen as their families’ primary caretakers and being subject to harassment on the campaign trail and in office.
“A lot of political spaces are very toxic and misogynistic,” said Assemblywoman Sadaf Jaffer (D-Somerset). “It takes a toll on women who have to deal with it.”
Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex) announced earlier this year that she is stepping away from politics after almost 17 years to care for her 97-year-old mother. She did not run for reelection last week.
“We need to find better ways to help families at the beginning of life and at the end of life,” Jasey said. “And we need to look at ways to support women while they’re serving in office.”
Sen. Jean Stanfield (R-Burlington), who did not seek reelection, will be replaced by a man when the new session begins. Republican Latham Tiver won the race in the 8th District to succeed her.
“I don’t want to generalize but for some women, you’re running your households, you’re taking care of your kids,” Stanfield said. “Not that men don’t, but it is a factor that you’re juggling a lot of balls at that point and do you want to do more.”
Incumbents have a lot of power in politics, which allows men elected decades ago to remain in their positions until they retire, Sinzdak noted. Because county parties are especially influential in New Jersey, party bosses — particularly in the GOP — must diversify their pool of candidates and run more female candidates, she added.
Like Stanfield, Jaffer also decided not to seek reelection after one term. Parties often don’t provide the necessary resources for women and people of color who are seeking office for the first time, Jaffer said.
“There definitely is a bottleneck and a roadblock when it comes to the parties,” she said.
Women in politics aren’t just good for representation, but they also bring different life experiences and perspectives, Sinzdak said. Women legislators are more likely to build consensus across the aisle and bring underrepresented voices into their policymaking, she added.
“The bottom line is, as long as our Legislature is not quite reflective of the population it serves, then we’re going to be not fully realizing our constituents’ needs,” she said.
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