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Debbie Walsh is the director of the Center for American Women and Politics, a unit of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. (Photo: CAWP).

Opinion: Women’s Legislative Progress in Peril

By Debbie Walsh, April 03 2023 9:51 am


Nine years ago, New Jersey was in the top 10 states for women’s representation in state legislatures, according to our rankings here at the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP). Today, New Jersey isn’t even in the top 20 states. While other states have spent the last 10 years making enormous strides in women’s representation – two state legislatures and six state legislative chambers nationwide have reached or exceeded gender parity – New Jersey remains stuck in a rut. Garden State women have made a net gain of just seven seats in the New Jersey legislature in the past decade.

This year, things could get a whole lot worse.

In the 2023 state legislative elections, a record 12 women incumbents are not seeking re-election in their current districts, with nine seeking no other legislative office and three running for other legislative seats. This is both the highest raw number and the highest proportion of women departing the legislature in history, with 28.6% of women legislators leaving this year. This also means that women have to win 12 new seats in legislative elections in New Jersey this year just to hit the break-even point — without even accounting for the possibility that some incumbents may lose their races in the primary or general elections. This number is, as a reminder, higher than the entire net gain for women in the New Jersey legislature over the past 10 years. There is a real possibility that New Jersey women may lose ground in their share of seats in the state legislature.

According to CAWP data, 98 women are running in state legislative elections this year, a very slight increase from the 93 women who ran for the legislature in 2021, a year in which women’s representation in the legislature increased by just five seats. In election 2023, 30 women candidates are incumbents and 68 are running as non-incumbents. There are now 12 empty seats where incumbent women used to sit. Will those seats be filled by these non-incumbent women candidates? In two of these races, zero women are running. In three races, women are only running from the party that does not currently hold the seat. In seven races, women in the incumbent’s party are running for the seat with party support on the party line.

The party line in New Jersey politics, which bestows beneficial placement on voters’ ballots as well as electoral resources, has become an almost unassailable fortress, controlled by political elites that bestow their favor on preferred candidates. Of the candidates expected to have the party line this year, only about 38% are women. And of those women who have the party line, only 44% are running in a district that is currently represented by someone in their party. What we can’t know is how many women chose not to run at all because they couldn’t secure the party line.

We applaud those seven cases where departing women have a good chance of being replaced by women newcomers. But the party line is, as ever, a roadblock to parity in the Garden State. Look no further than the situation in Ocean County. Assemblywoman DiAnne Gove entered the legislature in 2009, but after she and fellow incumbent Republican Assemblymember Brian Rumpf backed the losing candidate for the Ocean County GOP party chair last year, Gove lost her spot on the party line. Her male co-incumbent kept his, and Gove’s place on the line was awarded to a male supporter of the new party chair. Gove briefly considered an off-the-line primary challenge but knew it would be a long shot at steep cost. A 14-year career in the legislature ended not by the voters but by the maneuverings of machine politics and the party line.

If this is the sort of abusive potential inherent to our party line system, then that system must end. Granting party insiders the power to give their preferred slates of candidates an unfair advantage by way of boosted ballot placement undermines the agency of New Jersey voters and stifles the political conversation that allows the best ideas and candidates to capture the attention of voters. It crushes the potential for new candidates to emerge in Garden State politics. If an incumbent with more than a decade of experience sees the prospect of an off-the-line campaign as futile, what hope can political outsiders and newcomers see for their own ambitions? Since political insiders are disproportionately white and male, and outsiders are disproportionately women and people of color, these undemocratic party processes are a key reason that our politics is not fully reflective of our population.

We’ll be lucky if 2023 is a stasis year for women in New Jersey politics. This year could potentially set us back and see New Jersey drop into the bottom half of states for women’s representation in state legislatures. What can we do to prepare for 2025? Working within the system that we have, party chairs and other leaders must do more to look outside their personal networks and recruit women candidates and support them in winnable races. And so long as this system is in place, women, people of color, young people, and all manner of political outsiders must demand not just their seat at the table, but their entry into the backrooms where decisions are made. We must do more to make sure there is more diversity among the people leading both parties. Get involved and grow your influence in your local and county party organizations. Otherwise, they’ll continue to make these decisions without you.

Progress towards gender parity will continue to plod along in fits and starts in a political environment crafted by political insiders for political insiders. We can’t expect to achieve 21st century political representation using the tools of 19th century political machines. When we New Jerseyans look at the stew of backrooms, horse-trading, and diner-booth deals that comprise the reality of our political system, shouldn’t we ask of ourselves — is there a better way?

Debbie Walsh is the director of the Center for American Women and Politics, a unit of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

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