Having a legislature that reflects the demographics of New Jersey, that’s a big deal. You may disagree and if so, do me a favor and count how many NJ legislators look like you. Or have a name like yours. Or practice law like you do. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
More than one? A lot more? Thought so.
This little anecdote reminds me why representation matters: last November, I was getting gas in Cherry Hill. This was a few days after the historic election of Sikh-American Ravi Bhalla as Hoboken’s new mayor. The station attendant, an elderly-looking man with a gigantic salt-and-pepper beard was wearing a Sikh turban.
“Did you hear about the new mayor up in Hoboken,” I asked.
The old man began to weep.
“It’s good, it’s good, it’s good,” he kept repeating, obviously very affirmed by an election result 75 miles away. Maybe the old man was thinking of his grandkids whose aspirations are nurtured by public role models like Mayor Bhalla. We want our kids to dream big, right? Equal representation helps more kids to just that.
In the wake of Sen. Bob Gordon’s accent to head the Board of Public Utilities, there are two assembly vacancies in the 38th district. The 38th includes a huge chunk of Bergen County and a tiny slice of Passaic. Assemblyman Joe Lagana moved up to fill Gordon’s spot and Assemblyman Tim Eustace (who also vied for that Senate seat) lowered the curtain on his legislative career. Joe Lagana will make a great senator. So would’ve Tim Eustace, whose retirement created the second opening.
“Politics is a game for the young,” the venerable Bergen Democratic chairman Lou Stellato said, explaining for example why Lagana and not Eustace.
Lagana’s heir apparent appears to be Bergenfield Council president Arvin Amatorio. He’d be the first Filipino-American to serve in the state house. The shortlist to replace Eustace includes Fair Lawn Mayor Lisa Swain and Hasbrouck Heights councilman Christopher Hillman.
There’s a yawning gender gap in NJ politics that dates back to the very beginning. Women currently occupy a mere 35 of 120 seats in Trenton, an abysmal 29.2 percent. Lisa Swain’s ascent would nudge that figure to 30%.
Tim Eustace was the first (out) gay person elected to the NJ General Assembly. His departure leaves Reed Gusciora alone to fly the LGBT flag in Trenton. And with Gusciora a leading contender to become Trenton’s next mayor, we’re thisclose to having an all-heretosexual NJ state legislature.
And to me that feels like the opposite of progress.
At 37, Chris Hillman comports with Chairman Stellato’s desire to tap the next generation of candidates. The sooner they start, the longer they’ll wield seniority and long-tenures as committee chairs. That translates into more juice for Bergen County in Trenton. Stellato’s thinking long term. It’s a clever strategy.
Chris Hillman served as Eustace’s chief of staff for five years. No one knows that district better. If seamless constituent services matters, Chris Hilllman is poised to best deliver. That, plus his uncommonly forward-thinking approach to NJ’s opiate crisis make Hillman a natural choice to fill Eustace’s vacancy.
Hillman also happens to be gay. Which might be reason number 7 or 8 to choose him. But an important reason nonetheless.
NJ’s LGBT community gathered at the Watermark in Asbury Park last weekend to fête one of their own. After 12 years at the helm of Garden State Equality’s PAC, Luanne Peterpaul was stepping down. Governor Phil Murphy and Congressman Frank Pallone were both on hand to make the occasion extra special.
The room was teeming with political junkies – LGBT and allies – and chatter quickly turned to the unfortunate specter of a legislature completely devoid of LGBT voices.
“New Jersey deserves to continue to have LGBT representation in the legislature,” GSE president Christian Fuscarion told InsiderNJ. “Garden State Equality has been working diligently to ensure all qualified LGBT candidates will be considered (for these vacancies).”
There were murmurs in the crowd that Murphy’s deeds lag behind his words on LGBT inclusion. Sure, he put a lesbian in charge of the DMV, and by most accounts it’s a good fit. But Sue Fulton, the only gay person in Murphy’s cabinet, was actually the Gov’s second choice. The Governor first tapped Belmar mayor Matt Doherty who held out for a better more lucrative gig. The LGBT community has no netter straight-ally than Matt Doherty whose equality bona fides runneth over. But for the purposes of this discussion he’s yet another straight white guy with an Irish name who got the privilege and honor of first refusal. And Sue Fulton, a graduate of West Point and one of the most brilliant women I’ve ever known, was Murphy’s consolation prize. (Note to Governor Murphy: yes, we all noticed.)
When Bergen and Passaic democratic committee members convene in a few weeks to select NJ’s newest assembly members, they’ll have an opportunity to send the first Filipino-American in history to the state house. For the 110,000 Filipino-Americans who live in NJ, that’s especially meaningful.
Just like it matters to LGBT people all over NJ to see one of our own sent to Trenton.
Jay Lassiter’s award-winning podcast HEROIN UNCUT, THE TRUTH ABOUT THE CRISIS is on iTunes and Google Play. You can binge-watch Season 1 in less than 3 hours. If you’re a lawmaker or a chief of staff or a legislative aide, this especially means you! He’s on Twitter @Jay_Lass.