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Marion West Higgins (R-Hillsdale) is sworn in as the Speaker of the New Jersey State Assembly in January 1965. (Photo by Ace Alagna. Seton Hall University Libraries, The Monsignor William Noé Field Archives & Special Collections Center.)

Schepisi win could affect ’23 map

Bergen Republicans elect a woman to the Senate more than 55 years after they first tried

By David Wildstein, March 10 2021 12:37 am

When State Sen.-elect Holly Schepisi (R-River Vale) takes the oath of office, probably next week, she will become the first Republican woman to represent Bergen County in the New Jersey State Senate.

Her victory in a special election convention on Tuesday night comes more than 55 years after Republicans in the state’s largest county first nominated a woman to run for the Senate.

Schepisi’s election doubles the number of GOP women in the New Jersey Senate from one to two.

It will also mark the first time the Bergen Senate delegation includes two women.  Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) has represented the next-door 37th district since 2005.

Two other women represent parts of Bergen County in the upper house: Kristin Corrado (R-Totowa) in the 40th district and Nellie Pou (D-North Haledon) in the 35th.  That means four women out of a total of seven Senators representing at least some part of Bergen County.

If Schepisi holds the seat in the primary and general elections, her election likely changes the political landscape for legislative redistricting in advance of the 2023 legislative elections.

A tiebreaker could be less likely to permit a map that is unfavorable to one of two Republican women in the Senate.  That could reverse a slow trend that has made the 39th district appear more competitive – Joe Biden carried the 39th by 6,280 votes, 52%-47%, against Donald Trump last year – and add some additional GOP area to protect Schepisi.

That could freeze hopes by Bergen County Democrats to flip the 39th, where Gerald Cardinale won his 12th term in the Senate in 2017 by a 53%-46% margin.

Marion West Higgins’ 1965 State Senate race

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s One-Man, One-Vote decision, New Jersey ended the practice of electing one senator from each of 21 counties and instead apportioned State Senate seats based on population in 1965.  Bergen County had four Senate seats under the new plan.

In 1965, Assembly Speaker Marion West Higgins (R-Westwood), the first woman to serve as Speaker of the New Jersey State Assembly, sought the Republican nomination for State Senate.

Higgins ran in a sharply divided primary election on a ticket backed by Bergen County Republican Chairman Walter Jones, a former state senator and gubernatorial candidate.

She finished first in the nine-candidate field, running 13,529 votes ahead of incumbent Pierce Deamer, who lost renomination as part of a GOP war that year.

Assemblyman Peter Moraites (R-Alpine), former Assemblyman Nelson Gross (R-Saddle River), and former Freeholder Arthur Vervaet (R-Oakland) ran with Higgins.

Deamer ran his own ticket that included Assemblymen Richard Vander Plaat (R-Fair Lawn) and Harry Randall (R-Westwood), and former Assemblyman Carmine Savino (R-Lyndhurst).

The Jones slate won the primary by a 3-2 margin.  Deamer trailed Vervaet by 10,419 votes.

In the general election, she faced Saddle Brook Mayor Jeremiah O’Connor, Teaneck Mayor Matthew Feldman, former deputy state attorney general Ned Parsekian, and Hasbrouck Heights Democratic Municipal Chairman Alfred Kiefer, the general counsel to the New Jersey Synod of the Lutheran Church.

With Gov. Richard Hughes carrying Bergen County by 41,000 votes in his re-election bid, 1965 turned out to be a big Democratic year.

Democrats won all four Senate seats – their first win since William Ely defeated Hackensack Harry Harper in 1931.  Higgins finished sixth in the race for the four seats, losing by 4,809 votes.

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