With the election of State Sen. Renee Burgess (D-Irvington) last year, the number of women in the New Jersey Legislature reached an all-time high-water mark, with 42 women – more than one-third of the legislature’s 120 members – serving concurrently.
But thanks to a recent spate of retirements among female legislators, those numbers might drop once the new legislature is sworn in next year, slowing the progress New Jersey politics has made towards reaching gender parity.
“The atmosphere in New Jersey has never been welcoming to women in the political environment, particularly if they rise up in any way,” said former Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck), a longtime and tireless advocate for women in politics. “We’re suffering real losses [this year].”
So far, six women have made clear their intentions to retire from the legislature this year, including Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-South Orange) just yesterday; a seventh, State Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City), is near-certain to depart due to cognitive health issues. Including Cunningham, that means women make up half of the legislators who are retiring this year without seeking another state legislative office.
And in at least three of those cases, their designated successor is a man. Assemblywoman Angelica Jimenez (D-West New York) has been supplanted on the Hudson Democratic ticket by West New York Gabe Rodriguez; State Sen. Jean Stanfield (R-Westampton) is likely to be succeeded by former Burlington County Freeholder Latham Tiver; and the four-candidate field to replace Assemblywoman DeAnne DeFuccio (R-Upper Saddle River) is entirely male.
Two others, Assemblywomen Sadaf Jaffer (D-Montgomery) and Annette Chaparro (D-Hoboken), are set to be replaced by women: Mitchelle Drulis and Jessica Ramirez, respectively. (Technically, Chaparro will be replaced by fellow Hobokenite John Allen and Ramirez will take the place of Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, but in terms of gender balance, the district will remain unchanged.) As for Jasey and Cunningham, it’s still too early to say who is most likely to take their places.
There are also a small set of women legislators who are running for re-election but might not make it past the primary. Assemblywoman DiAnne Gove (R-Long Beach) faces a bevy of Republican challengers, most of them men, while redistricting forced State Sen. Nia Gill (D-Montclair) into a primary against State Sen./former Gov. Richard Codey (D-Roseland), a contest that Codey is favored to win.
Even if many of the retiring women are replaced by fellow women, Weinberg noted that losing long-tenured legislators like Jasey and Cunningham is a blow to female seniority and power in a legislature where all four top leaders are men.
“It takes a little while to learn the ins and outs of New Jersey government,” Weinberg said. “Losing experienced women who have learned how to get something done in this very transactional atmosphere is a loss to the state and a loss to their particular legislative district constituents.”
Not a single retiring male legislator, on the other hand, is guaranteed to be succeeded by a woman, though there are a few places where it’s a possibility. Mercer County Commissioner Nina Melker, Mercer Democratic Chair Janice Mironov, and Hamilton Councilwoman Nancy Phillips are all possible candidates to replace Assemblyman Dan Benson (D-Hamilton), and Sussex County Commissioner Dawn Fantasia is one of the frontrunners for two open Assembly seats in the 24th legislative district.
The picture is still too murky to establish exactly what the gender breakdown of the legislature will be next year. There could be more retirements or primary upsets to come, and some districts could see major shifts based on general election results, which are tough to predict this far out.
In 2021, for example, it looked like women wouldn’t make serious gains in representation, but then four Republican women – now-Assemblywomen Marilyn Piperno (R-Colts Neck), Kim Eulner (R-Shrewsbury), Beth Sawyer (R-Woolwich), and Bethanne McCarthy Patrick (R-Mannington) – unexpectedly defeated four Democratic incumbents, most of them male. Similar surprises are definitely a possibility this year.
But while general elections give voters in swing districts input on their representation, most legislative primaries will be decided by county parties and leaders long in advance; many of the retirements announced thus far, in fact, have been at the behest of party leaders. If gender diversity in the New Jersey Legislature is to hold steady or increase this year, those leaders are going to have to proactively make sure it happens.
“I think it is up to the ‘powers-that-be’ to always make sure that they have a lot of different voices represented, and certainly that women, with their unique problems and understanding of what goes on in our world, are well represented,” Weinberg said. “I’m not enthusiastic about what I see.”