Home>Campaigns>Women legislators hard-pressed to increase their numbers in 2021

Democratic legislative candidates in the 37th district: Ellen Park, left, Gordon Johnson, center, and Shama Haider. (Photo: Johnson for New Jersey).

Women legislators hard-pressed to increase their numbers in 2021

Asian Americans set to grow their legislative strength

By Joey Fox, August 11 2021 11:38 am

The New Jersey state legislature, where all four legislative leaders and nearly 60% of all legislators are white men, is a body that has room to grow more diverse. But based on the candidates running this November, the 2021 elections seem unlikely to bring about major demographic changes – with one major exception.

If both parties retain all of their current seats – far from a certain event, but a good baseline for a theoretical analysis – the number of women in the legislature will inch upwards from 37 to 38, Black legislators will increase their numbers by one, and openly LGBTQ+ people will continue to be shut out entirely from the statehouse.

Asian Americans, however, are poised to dramatically increase their representation in the legislature, going from three members currently to a hypothetical seven in 2022.

A number of female and Asian American candidates are running in competitive districts, meaning these numbers are only projections, and the true roster of the 220th legislature won’t be known until November. But regardless of general election results, it is clear that 2021 will not be the year the state legislature begins to accurately reflect the demographics of the state.


Women currently make up 37 of the legislature’s 120 members – 11 in the Senate and 26 in the Assembly. Depending on the results in some competitive districts, that number will likely remain approximately the same, or increase slightly.


In Atlantic County’s 2nd district, Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Northfield) is running for the district’s open State Senate seat, and Atlantic County Commissioner Caren Fitzpatrick is the Democratic nominee to replace him.

Even if the Democratic slate in the competitive district falls short, one of the two Republican nominees is former Deputy Attorney General Claire Swift, meaning that either way Atlantic County will likely have its first female legislator since Delores Cooper (R-Atlantic City) left office in 1992.

The Burlington County-based 8th district may move in the opposite direction, with Assemblywoman Jean Stanfield (R-Westampton) running for the State Senate and an all-male Republican slate campaigning to fill her Assembly seat and that of retiring Assemblyman Ryan Peters (R-Hainesport).

However, like the 2nd district, the 8th district is one of the state’s most competitive districts, and board of education member Allison Eckel could flip an Assembly seat into the Democratic column.

The 16th district, covering parts of Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, and Somerset Counties, is another district where women candidates stand to benefit.

Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-South Brunswick) is running for the district’s open State Senate seat, and the Democratic nominee for his Assembly seat is former Montgomery Township Mayor Sadaf Jaffer. But while it has veered towards Democrats in recent years, the 16th district remains competitive, and Jaffer could lose to an all-male Republican Assembly slate.

A similar situation is playing out in the predominantly Union County-based 21st district, where Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield) is running for the State Senate, and his would-be Republican successor is New Providence Councilwoman Michele Matsikoudis. Unlike in the 16th district, however, both Assembly nominees from both parties are women, meaning that the district will have two Assemblywomen no matter which party emerges victorious.

In the 26th district, which is largely in Essex and Morris Counties, incumbent Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce (R-Parsippany) lost re-nomination to former Pompton Lakes Councilman Christian Barranco; the Republican ticket in the district is now entirely men. The Democratic Assembly candidates, both of whom are women, are unlikely to flip the seat, which has not elected a Democrat to the legislature since the 1970s.

Finally, in the eastern Bergen County-based 37th district, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) is retiring and will likely be succeeded by Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-Englewood) in a district that has never elected a Republican to the legislature.

The Democratic nominees for Johnson’s Assembly seat and that of his colleague, Assemblywoman and failed State Senate candidate Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Englewood), are both women: former Englewood Cliffs Councilwoman Ellen Park and former Tenafly Councilwoman Shama Haider. Thus, assuming that Democrats hold all three seats, the overall gender breakdown of the 37th district will remain the same, but the number of women in the State Senate will go down by one.

Currently, twelve districts are represented entirely by men, while only one – the 29th district, based in Newark – is represented entirely by women. Two of the twelve all-male districts appear set to elect at least one woman in 2021, but Barranco’s defeat of DeCroce in the 26th district will likely create one more three-man district.

Democratic women, who currently outnumber Republican women 28 to nine, are favored to maintain or grow their overwhelming advantage. If both parties retain all of their current seats, there will be 30 Democratic women and only eight Republican women in the next legislature.

Sexual orientation

Since former Assemblymen Reed Gusciora (D-Trenton) and Tim Eustace (D-Maywood) left office in 2018, the legislature has not had a single openly LGBTQ+ member, despite its Democratic lean and liberal reputation.

The 2021 elections stand a chance of changing that, with Republican and former Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian running for the Assembly in the 2nd district. If Guardian were to win, he would be one of the few openly gay Republican legislators anywhere in the country. However, Guardian is not guaranteed a victory, and is locked in a competitive battle against the district’s Democratic slate.

In the 13th district, meanwhile, U.S. Army veteran Vincent Solomeno is running as a Democrat to become the state’s first openly LGBTQ+ state senator, but he faces steep odds against incumbent State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Little Silver) in the historically Republican district.

Race and ethnicity

The one demographic group that stands to significantly benefit from the 2021 elections is Asian Americans, who may double their representation in the legislature from three to between five and seven members.

Senate Majority Conference Leader Vin Gopal (D-Long Branch), Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairman Raj Mukherji (D-Jersey City), and Assemblyman Sterley Stanley (D-East Brunswick) will most likely be joined by Park and Haider from the 37th district, and potentially Jaffer in the 16th district and 8th district Republican Assembly candidate Brandon Umba.

If any of Park, Haider, or Jaffer are elected, they would be the first Asian American women to ever serve in the legislature. Haider and Jaffer would additionally make history by being the first Muslims elected to the legislature.

There will also likely be one additional Black legislator, with Assembly Majority whip Nicholas Chiaravalloti (D-Bayonne) being dropped from the 31st district Democratic line in favor of William Sampson, who is Black.

But no predictions or projections can be set in stone until after November 2 – particularly in the highly competitive 2nd, 8th, and 16th districts.

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