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Assemblyman Raj Mukherji at Gov. Phil Murphy's fiscal year 2023 budget address delivered on March 8, 2022. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe).

Young people are significantly underrepresented in Trenton

More than half of legislative districts don’t have a single legislator under 50

By Joey Fox, March 25 2022 2:44 pm

Does the New Jersey legislature have an age problem?

Usually, that kind of question is answered with statistics about just how old politicians are. The average age of a New Jersey legislator, for example, is 58-and-a-half; looking just at the State Senate, the more prominent and prestigious chamber, the average age is 63.

37 legislators, or nearly one-third of the legislature’s 120 members, have reached the standard retirement age of 65, and another dozen are just a couple years away from that milestone. 

But this framing – focusing on how old the legislature is – perhaps misses the point. After all, for all the grief politicians in their 70s and 80s get about their age, they represent a large and growing constituency: older Americans. Nearly 17 percent of New Jersey’s population was 65 or older as of the 2020 Census, and it makes sense that people who understand their interests would have a voice in the legislature.

On the other hand, the flipside to an older legislature is that young people tend to be left underrepresented, something that is very much the case in New Jersey.

There are currently no legislators under the age of 30, and just one – Assemblyman William Sampson (D-Bayonne), who was elected last year at age 32 – below the age of 35; another eight legislators are in their mid-to-late 30s. Millennials, who are a little over 20% of the state’s population, make up just 8% of its legislature.

Legislators in their 40s are more common, but are still significantly outnumbered. There are a total of 25 legislators under the age of 50, making up less than a quarter of the overall legislature. To put it another way, more than half of the state’s districts – 21 out of 40 – are represented by a slate of three legislators all older than 50.

What all of these statistics mean is that many young New Jerseyans, when they look at those who represent them in Trenton, won’t be able to find anyone who shares their life experiences. And according to Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Jersey City), who at age 37 is still one of the legislature’s youngest members, that could spell make it more difficult for millennials and Zoomers to engage with politics.

“When it comes to voter apathy among younger generations in non-presidential elections, I think it is important that they be able to look at elected legislatures and see millennials represented in legislative office,” Mukherji said. “So that they can be involved, and they can feel represented, and they can feel a generational connection to their contemporaries.”

Mukherji was 29 when he was elected in 2013, and there hasn’t been a 20-something in the legislature since he turned 30 during his first term. He’s very likely to win a seat in the State Senate next year, joining 36-year-old State Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Long Branch) in the body’s small cohort of 30-somethings; Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake (D-West Orange), who is currently 35, may also join them.

 (Thanks to the New Jersey Constitution, there will never be a senator in their 20s, since the minimum age for that chamber is 30. The minimum age for the Assembly, on the other hand, is 21.)

Mukherji noted that younger legislators might have a better understanding of issues that older politicians aren’t as familiar with.

“When you’re dealing with certain issues – when you’re talking about social media, when you’re talking about blockchain or data privacy – there are certain things that I guess the younger folks might require less staff briefing on,” he said.

Matt Anderson, a member of the Monmouth County Democratic State Committee and the founder of the political action committee Millennials for NJ, agreed and said that issues like college affordability and the environment might get more focus if there were more young legislators able to advocate for them.

“When you talk about the issues that we [as young people] care about, maybe they’re not being focused on as much because, ultimately, they don’t have the same number of people in there representing them,” he said.

It was this underrepresentation of young people, and millennials specifically, that drove Anderson to create Millennials for NJ, which awards $1,000 grants to a cohort of millennial candidates every year. Young candidates often have trouble fundraising because their own personal networks usually have less disposable income than an older candidate’s might, Anderson said, so Millennials for NJ was created to fill that gap.

Asked how the New Jersey political world can be more inclusive of millennial and Zoomer candidates, both Anderson and Mukherji said that part of the responsibility lies with young people, who tend to have far lower voter turnout rates and often don’t put themselves up for consideration to begin with.

“It’s easy to be on the outside looking in, and to blame the inside for being treated unfairly,” Anderson said. “But I think that millennials and people on the outside looking in need to start trying to make a push and say we want more representation, and we think that we deserve it, and here’s why. Here’s the value that we offer to the party.”

But both also said that there are likely changes the political establishment could make to diversify its ranks.

“Some of the responsibility falls on party leadership,” Mukherji said. “Just as we are looking to expand the representation of diverse groups based on race and gender and sexual orientation, we should also be looking to diversify by engaging younger adults.”

Hovering over any such discussion is the specter of the county line, which allows parties to put a major thumb on the scale for their preferred candidates in primaries. Because the line typically rewards long-serving incumbents and makes it harder for candidates without long-standing connections to party leaders, young candidates without pre-existing political networks are at a disadvantage.   

“Some people would argue that if we eliminated county lines, that would open things up,” Anderson said. “That would allow more people to run, and not just run; they would argue it would allow more people to win. That’s an argument that can be made. It might be true.”

There is some evidence that, because of the party line or other factors, New Jersey’s system is worse-equipped to promote age diversity than that of other states. In New York, there are two legislators in their 20s and another eight who were elected in their 20s and are now in their early 30s; the average age of a New York state senator is 53, a full ten years younger than the average New Jersey state senator.

The problem, in other words, is not unique to New Jersey, but it also does not have to be as pronounced as it is in the Garden State.

Ultimately, progress towards a more age-balanced legislature is both always advancing and always retreating. Every new cycle brings a cohort of new lawmakers, who are typically younger than the average veteran incumbent, and yet every new cycle also means the last cycle’s fresh faces are two years older.

Assemblymembers Sadaf Jaffer (D-Montgomery) and Chris Tully (D-Bergenfield), for instance, were elected last year as two of the legislature’s nine members under 40; when they’re up for re-election next year, they’ll both have crossed that threshold. 

Or, for another example: when 86-year-old former Senate Minority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) announced she was retiring last year, 71-year-old Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-Englewood) and 64-year-old Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Englewood) both ran to succeed her. Either would have brought down the average age of the Senate, but both were hardly young candidates.

Ensuring young representation in the legislature does not simply happen; it has to be a permanently ongoing process.

Anderson emphasized that it can be hard to have the confidence to run for office as a young person, especially against older and more experienced candidates. But taking that plunge, he said, is critical if the New Jersey political world is ever to look like the state it represents.

“It’s tough as a young person to step forward when you think it’s your turn, and people might say, it’s not your turn yet,” he said. “You have to make that decision of, do I want to step forward?”

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