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Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Ewing)

Trailblazer: Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman

First African American woman to represent New Jersey in Congress

By David Wildstein, January 20 2020 12:58 am

Bonnie Watson Coleman, 73, was the first African American woman to represent New Jersey in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the first African American to serve as New Jersey Democratic State Chair.

Watson Coleman came from a powerful political family. Her father, John Watson, was an Assemblyman, and her brother, Bill Watson, was a Trenton political insider.

After spending twenty years in state government, Watson Coleman won a State Assembly seat in 1997, filling the open seat created when Assemblywoman Shirley Turner (D-Lawrence) ran for the State Senate.

She was re-elected eight times with no real difficulty.

Watson Coleman impressed party leaders enough to become Gov. James E. McGreevey’s pick to be Democratic State Chair in 2002.  She also chaired the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

When Joseph Roberts (D-Camden) moved up to Speaker after the 2005 election, Watson Coleman easily secured the Majority Leader post.

Watson Coleman’s political career faltered in 2009; she had just two declared votes in the race to succeed Roberts as Speaker.

When Rep. Rush Holt (D-Hopewell) announced that he would not seek re-election after sixteen years in Congress, Watson Coleman entered the race to succeed him.

She won the Democratic primary by a 43%-28% margin – 5,514 votes – against State Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Plainsboro).  Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D-Franklin) finished third with 22%, followed by now-Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker with 7%.

Earlier this month, Watson Coleman won a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

This story was first published on January 21, 2019.

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