By Debbie Walsh
Every 10 years, after the decennial census, the New Jersey Allocation Commission meets to redraw the lines of the state’s 40 legislative districts so that population changes are reflected in the 40 Senate seats and 80 seats in the state. the General Assembly of the New Jersey Legislature. This commission will determine the contours of New Jersey politics for the next 10 years. They will have in their hands the fate of incumbent lawmakers, partisan control of each legislative constituency, and the hopes of newcomers awaiting the opportunity to present themselves.
The first indications are that, out of the 10 members of the bipartite commission selected for the next redistribution, only one member will be a woman. There will be zero democratic women. The next decade of New Jersey politics will be challenged in an environment created almost entirely without the input of women, further distancing them from the levers of state power.
I have no doubt that the people chosen to serve are dedicated public servants, but they do not reflect the diversity of the state. They were selected by political agents of the state who historically reassigned power from those who are already powerful.
During the last redistribution, women were three of the 10 members of the commission, which, although still far from parity, was significantly better than the future commission. Even then, the negative impacts of last disproportionate redistribution women affected. In 2011, when women made up 28% of the New Jersey legislature, four of the lawmakers ousted by the repercussions of their district’s redistribution – 57% of the total – were women.
Women are already struggling in the politics of New Jersey, a state in which consolidated party power creates few opportunities for advancement for newcomers and foreigners. In the state legislature, women hold less than a third of the seats, which means New Jersey isn’t even in the top 20 states in the country for women’s representation in its legislature. Women lag behind in county leadership positions, as free landowners and as mayors, never reaching one-third of those positions.
Behind those elected positions, however, are the presidents of the Democratic and Republican county parties, who wield inordinate influence over the recruitment and approval of candidates. Of the 42 county party chairmen, there are only nine women – five Democrats and four Republicans. With men occupying 79% of these positions of power, the opportunities for women to advocate for other women in their personal and professional networks as candidates for office are reduced.
It becomes clear fairly quickly, between the predominantly male party presidents and an almost all-male redistribution commission, that New Jersey’s political power system remains unwelcoming to women in the state. In the wake of NJ.com/The Star-Ledger reporting on the misogyny, harassment, and even sexual assault that permeates our state’s political institutions, there has been a lot of talk about how to change the culture. One of the most obvious answers is to include more women at all levels of government and politics. It should start with the representation of women on the commission that sets state policy.
The decision to almost completely exclude women’s voices from the redistribution process sends a powerful message to New Jersey women that they are not valued by the men who wield power in that state. Optics are bad, but it’s more than optics. It’s about substance. The research described last year in Harvard Business Review have shown that gender inclusiveness, authentic and not just decorative, improves business results, measured by both market value and income. In 2014, American scientist reviewed a variety of research showing that diversity, including gender diversity, leads to more innovative and creative thinking and better results across a range of organizations.
Excluding women from decisions that will impact a decade of politics in New Jersey not only deprives women of a voice in those decisions, but also robs the commission of the wisdom and innovative thinking that is a a natural by-product of consulting a wide range of opinions. and experiments and that deprives New Jersey of better results. For the outcome of the 2020 redistribution to be fair, the New Jersey Allocation Commission must be fairer.
Debbie Walsh is the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University.
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