So-called Progressive NJ has Still Only had One Woman Governor Amid a Sea of White Males

Whitman

New Jersey has had only one female Governor. The Garden State, which prides itself as being diverse, has also never had a person of color serve as Governor. 

“It’s bad for the state,” said Governor Christine Todd Whitman, the only woman who has ever been elected Governor in New Jersey. “I mean, we are a diverse state and that gives us our strength and our character, but not to be more representative of our state in our elected officials — we lose as a state.

“You get better governance when you have a more diverse set of people at the decision-making table, and that has been proven over-and-over again.” 

The record hasn’t been great in other states, either. There have been only two
Black Governors in the United States. When it comes to women, though, other states have fared better than New Jersey. Arizona has had four women serve as Governor, and Kansas, three. Texas and New Mexico have had two female Governors each. Susana Martinez was New Mexico’s first Hispanic female Governor. 

Whitman, a Republican, served two terms as New Jersey Governor before leaving the position in 2001 to become the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator. Whitman remembers how difficult it was to run for Governor as a woman back in the 1990s. However, she says, little has changed since then. 

“It was a real challenge but it wasn’t as much of a challenge then as it is today,” Whitman told me in a phone interview, “And, you didn’t have to have quite the amount of money then as you have to have today but I also was lucky in that I had a few people who came out of Wall Street, who were able to do the fundraising, I hate fundraising. I hated it.”

Jeannine LaRue
Jeannine LaRue

Getting support to run for Governor in New Jersey is a complicated process. It starts at the county level, where over the years, a small group of mostly white men have decided whether to give the nod to a person running for Governor.   

“If the average citizen realized how few people are really making the decision on who is running for what seat it will shock them,” said Jeannine LaRue, a long-time lobbyist and social justice activist. “Someone could sit in their living room and say, ‘I want to run for Senate.’ If they really believe that it is just that simple — they don’t understand New Jersey politics.” 

Republican or Democrat County Committee Chairpeople across New Jersey 

Generally have to give their approval to a person seeking to become Governor. 

“Typically, there is a screening process by the county party leadership that’s needed to get their

blessing,” said Jeanette Hoffman, a Republican strategist and President of Marathon Public Affairs. “Without such an endorsement, it’s pretty difficult for a candidate to be selected as a preferred party representative.” 

Jeanette Hoffman

“They’ll say, ‘are your people on board?’” Said LaRue, referring to how the process works. “And, that is a term that doesn’t change throughout the ages.

“And what ‘get them on board’ means is that a small group of people in the county have made a decision that they are going with an individual, and I don’t think they look for a profile. I don’t think folks say we want a Wall Street guy.” 

“What it is is that they want you to help them largely raise money for their coffers, their county coffers,” Whitman pointed out. “Women still have a pay disparity, women still have not risen to the types and many of the businesses that have allowed them the discretion to help direct the funding that businesses give to candidates, and so they don’t necessarily come with a lot of financial support. They have to work a lot at it, and what the counties want is people who have the disposable income or work in companies where they can help direct the funding.”

Whitman, who ran for the U.S. Senate before seeking the Governor’s seat, says while she hated the process of getting the blessing of party chairs, she worked hard at it. She did the final bidding and closed many of the deals herself.

“They thought there were other challenger candidates who would do better,” Whitman added. “Turned out, no, I did the best. It’s unfair to say I had no support from the party running for Governor, not much during the primaries. Except that I spent so much time working hard in between the Senatorial race and the gubernatorial that I had aligned a lot of counties and closed a lot of deals. It was hard.”

While each county has a different way of supporting a gubernatorial candidate,  the end result has been the same over the years. Very few women and people of color have gotten the nod. LaRue blames it on systemic racism. 

“What I do think is that people tend to look — even in a political lens — they look for people who look like them,” said LaRue, who has a history of working with politicians on both sides of the aisle. “They look for folks who look like them so it is kind of difficult for white men to really look at a woman and say, ‘mm, I could follow her lead.’”

But both LaRue and Hoffman say more women and people of color are now filling those County Committee Chair seats and that could change the playing field for women and people of color who want to be Governor.

“I think in some counties New Jersey’s selection system is very closed off to newcomers, which can include women and people of color, especially if it’s run by an old boys’ network that still thinks it’s the 1950s,” Hoffman said. “But fortunately, there are a lot of good, county chairs who realize that when you put women candidates forward, they are often very successful at the polls. A perfect example of that is here in Monmouth County, where we have a number of women, female commissioners and elected officials endorsed by our county leadership. We even have one of the most competitive legislative districts in the state being run by all-women candidates.”

LaRue points to progress, as well. In her own county, Mercer, Janice S. Mironov is the Democrat County Committee Chair.  

“I do believe that in four more years, there are going to be maybe one or two women who will surface and seriously seek the position as the Governor,” LaRue said, “Because more women now are serving on county committees so I think we may be able to get a person in a primary who will be a serious contender.”

LaRue has her list of favorite Democrat women in politics who she believes could be serious contenders for Governor in four years. Both women are Black. LaRue says Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver would be a strong candidate if she chooses to run. She’s also impressed with State Assemblywoman Shavonda E. Sumter.

“She has never announced and said anything but I just know that she has given  a lot of thought to what her next steps will be in politics,” LaRue said of Assemblywoman Sumter. “She’s made her rounds around the state because she cares about public policy a lot. And wherever she goes, there are people who are just pretty impressed with her. She is now the chair of the Legislative Black caucus.”

There’s also the scenario that if Governor Phil Murphy wins again this November, he could seek higher office during his term, and that would leave the Governor’s seat to Oliver. 

Democrat Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill’s another name circulating as a possible candidate for Governor in four years. On the Republican side, a few names have been tossed around, as well. They include, State Senator Holly Schepisi, Monmouth County Clerk Christine Hanlon, Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz and State Assemblywoman Kristin Corrado. 

LaRue says she would have no issue supporting a moderate Republican female gubernatorial candidate, either.  

“And this is going to shock you, cause I am a staunch Democrat — I think that women when we begin to look at the way women are treated in our party — if our own party doesn’t treat us appropriately — I don’t have a problem reaching across the aisle if there is a moderate Republican who is running for office and I believe that she will speak up for the values that I believe in,” LaRue added. 

LaRue did exactly that when Governor Whitman ran for a second term. That’s saying something since LaRue says Whitman beat her “forever Governor,” Democrat Jim Florio.

“I was the chair of the Independents and Democrats for the re-election of Christine Todd Whitman and I am a Democrat,” LaRue said. “I did that because I figured men get two bites of the apple, why shouldn’t she? I thought that she had done a really great job of demonstrating that women are capable of being leaders. She had women at all the top areas of her administration.”

Whitman says the bottomline is county leaders have to start seriously supporting both women and people of color running for office. 

“It really means getting behind them and supporting them,” Whitman said. “I think in general, women have been reluctant to step forward, especially now, because things have gotten not just so expensive, but so nasty. It’s just not something most women feel comfortable with.” 

Democracy advocates also say the Ballot selection process in New Jersey unfairly treats candidates who haven’t been selected by party organizations. As InsiderNJ has reported, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and Campaign Legal Center filed a lawsuit back in June, challenging the state’s use of “the line” and other misleading primary ballot features. New Jersey is the only state that organizes its primary election ballots by placing a county-supported group of candidates in one row or “line.” 

“These ballot design flaws disproportionately burden Black and other voters of color and make it more difficult for candidates of color to win office, undermining the goal of fair representation,” Henal Patel pointed out back in June. Patel is the Director of the Democracy and Justice Program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. 

While New Jersey has diverse representation on the state legislative level and in Washington, D.C., it’s clear the state is lagging when it comes to electing more women and people of color to the Governor’s seat. For the first time, though, all sides seem to recognize the challenges and with recognition change may be around the corner. 

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