January 28, 2018 • News Article

The Star-Ledger: Women are breaking ground in N.J. politics. Here's why

New Jersey's annual Women's March on N.J., held earlier this month in Morristown, served as a reminder that the push for equality continues.

That includes equality among the Garden State's elected offices, where traditionally women have been underrepresented.

Times are changing, as evidenced by the current Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver, the first African American and woman of color to serve in the position, and former Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno, the first woman to serve in the position.

Both Oliver and Guadagno, a Democrat and Republican respectively, entered into politics on the local level, where more women are running for town councils and township committees, and winning.

 

A grassroots effort

A prime example of this can be found in the Union County town of Westfield, where Democrat Shelley Brindle was sworn in as Westfield's first woman mayor on Jan. 1. 

"I've never been a believer in that 'wait your turn,'" Brindle, the first woman to serve as an executive at HBO, said. "At work, I've never used tenure as a criteria or a metric for who's most qualified.

"To me, the most relevant experience in being a 23-year resident, running a $4.5-billion-dollar business, having three kids in the public schools, and having a husband that was PTO president and involved in the community. I don't know what more relevant experience you could have."

Another Westfield resident, community activist Lisa Mandelblatt, is planning a run for Congress this year. She is running in the June primary seeking the Democrat nomination for the 7th District.

"I woke up after the morning of the 2016 election to the realization that we had just elected a man that was an insult to women, people of color and hard working immigrants," Mandelblatt, who has a law degree and has worked as a substitute teacher, said. "I decided that I needed to do something to stop (President Donald Trump's) agenda.

"I thought about what President Obama said, which was 'You don't like what you see, grab a clipboard and run for something,' so I took him at his word." 

Brindle said Grace, her 18-year-old daughter, is the force who pushed her from running for a seat on the Town Council to running for mayor.

 

Numbers don't lie

The New Jersey State League of Municipalities reports that in 2017, the state had the largest number of women serving as mayors in more than nine years, some 85, or 15-percent of all mayors.

Of the state's total number of those serving elected positions that are not mayors, 24-percent are women.

Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr, a Democrat, is the league's first vice president, says although there has been progress, the numbers of women serving in elected positions needs to grow. 

"We need to build our bench," Mahr said, "and we need to find the next generation of women that are going to be motivated and to step up and advance what they think is really important priorities for their community." 

Fanwood, like Westfield, is in Union County, a progressive county that continues to set milestones for being inclusive. In 2016, Union County opened the Office on Women, the first of its kind in a Garden State county.

Women make up half of the population of New Jersey, and the Center for American Women in Politics reports that U.S. Census data shows that among those ages 18 to 64, across the nation more women than men have voted in every presidential election year since 1996. 

"When you look at a governing body, you have to ask, 'Is that governing body reflective of the community that it's serving?'" Mahr said. "I think that we're moving in the right direction of women being interested on the local level coming forward, but it's that staying involved, that consistency, that we'd have to see in order to move the percentages higher."

Could it be the Trump effect?

Across the country, women like Mandelblatt are seeking national offices. 

Currently, there are 439 women seeking party nominations to run for Congress in this year's mid-term elections, nearly double the number who ran in 2016, according to data from teh Center for Women in Politics.

Recently, the Center reported that the "strong turnout" of women candidates for Congressional seats was "fueled by anger at the 2016 presidential election and subsequent events."

U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12th) said Trump's election is one factor in women deciding to run for office. Another is the decade of efforts in New Jersey to get more women interested in politics, and running for office, she said.

Watson Coleman is the first African American — and the first woman of color — to represent New Jersey in Congress, and the first woman to represent New Jersey since 2003.

"Particularly women of color who have already rejected (Trump's) candidacy, stand up and reject his policies," Watson Coleman said. "But women in general, even white women, are all getting more engaged."

More women need to serve in Congress, she said, because they need to be part of the crafting of legislation that impacts a woman's right to choose what happens to her body, civil rights and equal rights in the workplace.

"We look at (laws) from the perspective of who they hurt, not from the perspective of what industry does it lift up and makes more money," Watson Coleman said. "I still think that women are very different than men in seeking power. We seek power to change things for the good of those who we see don't have it so good. We don't seek power just so we can have a powerful title, be recognized and that kind of thing.

"We really see ourselves as change agents and servants."

United across party lines

Being appointed Somerville's first woman mayor was a big surprise for Republican Ellen Brain.

Previously Brain, a former AT&T executive, ran for for a seat on the borough's council twice and lost. Like her predecessor, former Mayor Brian Gallagher, she will work with a Borough Council led by Democrats.

"I see now that the place you are is the place you’re meant to be," Brain said. "I feel like I'm back in the corporate world and that experience is what's going to help me lead and help me understand what's important to our tax payers. That's what it's about."

Brain was a natural choice for Councilwoman Jane Kobuta, who is a Democrat. After Gallagher, a Republican, was elected a Somerset County Freeholder at the end of 2017, the council interviewed three candidates.

Kobuta said Brain's resume and previous experience made her stand out against the other two candidates, both of whom were men. 

She was also happy to see Somerville get its first woman mayor. Kobuta had run for mayor in 2015, losing to Gallagher by just under 300 votes.

"I couldn't let my ego get in the way of what's best for the town, and in my opinion Ellen would do the best job," Kobuta said. "We have the same ... How can I say it? We're women."

A different type of obstacle

One of the biggest barriers for women looking to enter into local government is fundraising according the Kelly Yaede, mayor of Hamilton Township. Of all the municipalities in New Jersey with female mayors, Yaede presides over the largest population with Hamilton's population at 88,464 and growing.

"Once they actually get into office, they have an old boy network trying to tell  them what to do and how to do it," Yaede, a Republican, said. "As the first female I had to make it clear that if you wanted to be apart of the team and you had an issue working with women, you wouldn't be apart of the team."

Fight for acceptance continues

The acceptance of women into the world of politics, even on the local level, has evolved over the years, explained Hunterdon County Clerk Mary Melfi.

Melfi, a Republican, was sworn in Friday as president of the New Jersey Association of Counties. Previously, she served as president of the Constitutional Officers Association of New Jersey. A trailblazer, Melfi said in the 1970s she was the only woman working as a mechanic at a company that repaired industrial equipment.

"I used to have these guys say to me, 'Little lady, can you get your boss for me?'" Melfi said. "I'd be like, 'Little man, if you want your machine running, you're going to tell me what the problem is, because it's going to be me that's helping you.'"

Melfi acknowledged that while times have changed, women continue to face many of the same obstacles she faced throughout her career.

"Women were supposed to put all this focus on raising the family and heaven forbid, you stepped outside of that role, then you get labeled a bad mother or an uncaring mother," Melfi said. "As time evolves, you find that that's not the case anymore.

"My suggestion is find something you like. Find a niche and then get yourselves involved. As you grow and you learn and you know what you want to do, keep going up the ladder."