N.J. election sees record number of women
By Staff Writer, Stateline
There was plenty of news this year about the New Jersey Legislature on the Web site of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark :
The March 29 indictment of state Sen. Wayne Bryant of Lawnside; the July 12 indictment of state Sen. Sharpe James of Newark ; then the Sept. 6 arrests of Assemblymen Alfred Steele of Paterson and Mims Hackett Jr. of Orange .
All were Democrats, charged with corruption offenses, and all either resigned or withdrew from this week's Nov. 6 ballot, when all 120 seats in both houses are up for election.
Having New Jersey politicians involved in scandal is hardly unusual. But what is unusual is that the departures of Bryant, James, Steele and Hackett could lead to the highest percentage of women in the Legislature in history.
Also adding women candidates to the ballot is a spike in retirements by longtime incumbents this year. The party-boss-dominated system that heavily influences who is chosen for open seats - and has been criticized for overwhelmingly picking men in the past - put a record number of women on the ballot.
"There is a perception of women being more honest, although we have no data to prove that's true," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University .
"When there has been a lot of scandal and mistrust of politicians, that makes women more appealing," she said. "Women look like change. They don't even have to open their mouths sometime."
CAWP tracks women in legislatures around the country, and as recently as 2004, New Jersey ranked 43 rd in the number of women lawmakers, with just six in the Senate and 13 in the Assembly.
Besides the New Jersey contests, Tuesday's elections also will decide control of statehouse chambers in Mississippi and Virginia, while voters in Kentucky and Mississippi will elect governors. New Jersey is also among six states to consider 38 ballot measures on Tuesday. In addition to a stem-cell research question in New Jersey, Utahans will decide whether they want to launch the nation's broadest statewide education-voucher program, and voters in Oregon will consider increasing cigarette taxes by 85 cents a pack to help pay for health care for the uninsured. (Read Stateline.org's rundown of the Virginia races .)
In New Jersey, before Steele and Hackett were arrested and resigned, women held seven seats in the Senate and 16 in the Assembly or 19.2 percent of the total seats as of September.
Two appointments to scandal-vacated seats last month pushed the state up to 28 th , and there's a chance the state could break into the top 20. Depending on how several races break, Walsh said, New Jersey could rank right behind No. 19 Montana, where women hold 25.3 percent of the seats.
While the scandal climate swirling around Democratic lawmakers may have opened the door to more women, it does not seem to have endangered the legislative control Democrats first won in 2001.
The party currently holds 22 Senate seats and 50 Assembly seats. The latest handicapping by PoliticsNJ released this week shows 21 Senate and 44 Assembly seats - majorities in both houses - as "safe Democratic." On top of that, one seat in each house is "leaning Democratic" and one Senate seat and six Assembly seats are labeled "toss up."
This does not mean New Jersey voters are oblivious to corruption. On the contrary, a Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey poll released Oct. 7 found 71 percent think legislators have their own financial interests at heart while only 19 percent think lawmakers put the public's interest first.
But the public does not blame one particular party.
"It's a pox on both your houses as far as the voters are concerned," said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray. "The feeling is that being in power is what's corrupting. They are not convinced either party is free of corruption, so it's the devil you know versus the devil you don't know."
Democrats also believe President Bush's low popularity is helping them. At the very least, it is hindering the White House from helping Republicans with fund-raising, while Democrats have amassed a huge financial advantage.
Through Oct. 26, Democratic legislative candidates had outspent Republicans $18.2 million to $5.7 million and still had a $4 million cash-on-hand advantage for the campaign's final days, according to state Election Law Enforcement Commission reports.
On top of that, Democratic state-level party committees that can give unlimited amounts to legislative candidates had outspent Republicans 2.5-to-1 through Sept. 30 and had a $3.9 million cash advantage for the homestretch.
"I see things going well. Our message is competitive," said Joseph Cryan, an assemblyman and chairman of the Democratic State Committee. Cryan argued that property taxes, which Democrats addressed this year by boosting homeowner rebates to an average $1,100 this year, was the dominant concern of voters.
But corruption is a major issue in one of the closest races this year, and it's the Democrat who is talking about it. State Sen. Ellen Karcher is trying to hold the seat she won four years ago in predominantly Republican Monmouth County . She has spent almost $2 million so far, some of it for television ads in the expensive New York market, to highlight that she "wore a wire" to help the FBI catch developers trying to bribe public officials.
"You make this happen, there's $150,000 … easy," a scratchy voice says as Karcher holds up a micro-cassette recorder while standing before a backdrop of court transcripts.
Original Stateline Story