When it comes to electing women to Congress, New Jersey's record is not the best.

It's been nearly 12 years since the Garden State last sent a female to Washington, but that will change after next week's election.

 

No matter your gender, getting elected to that first term in Congress is hard. Extremely hard, according to Ingrid Reed who is now retired from the Rutgers Eagleton Institute

"The political landscape in New Jersey, as well as the general landscape about congressional districts, is that they are not very competitive," she said.

Gerrymandering has resulted in redrawn congressional districts to protect incumbents from both parties. And fewer competitive races means fewer chances for women candidates to break through.

"New Jersey has sent five women to Congress ever -- that includes three Republicans and two Democrats," said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers.
"The most recent woman to serve in New Jersey's congressional delegation was Marge Roukema who served from 1981 to 2003.

New Jersey and Delaware are among 19 states without female representation in the House of Representatives, but that will change this year as there are a number of women running for office.

"This year, New Jersey will have six women on the ballot for congressional offices," Dittmar said.

They include Aimee Belgard in South Jersey's 3rd District. In the 12th District, which covers parts of Mercer, Middlesex, Somerset and Union counties, there is a face-off between two women -- Republican Dr. Alieta Eck and Democratic Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman.

"Its very likely that Bonnie Watson Coleman will win that race and, if so, will not only become the first woman in New Jersey's congressional delegation since 2003, but also the first African-American woman and the first woman of color ever to be sent to Congress from New Jersey," Dittmar said.

The 12th District seat became available with the impending retirement of U.S. Rep. Rush Holt after eight terms.

But it's not always easy for female candidates to win a party's endorsement, even when it's an open seat with no incumbent, Reed said.

"In New Jersey, politics are still controlled by county parties, and congressional races are not as important as for the state legislature and the county," she said. "And the other part of this is that the county parties are basically run by men, and there are only two women right now who are county party chairs."

That's made it difficult for women to get visibility, said Reed, adding that a female candidate would have to be a "a real star to run for Congress and get the parties to support you."

In the case of New Jersey's 12th District, Bonnie Watson Coleman could certainly be considered a star, having served in the State Assembly since 1998 including stints as the majority leader and state Democratic Committee chairwoman.

Regardless, Watson Coleman said, women candidates face challenges their male counterparts never encounter.

"Some of which has to do with the way we've been socialized into always working for someone else and not working for ourselves and not seeing ourselves in that role," she said. "But, institutionally, it's been a part of the old boys network. So, generally speaking, they just don't speak of us in terms of viable candidates."

Her opponent, Eck, ran for U.S. Senate last year in New Jersey but was beaten in the Republican primary by perennial candidate Steve Lonegan.

And so, barring an election eve surprise, "the end of the story is that New Jersey will finally have a woman in Congress after 11 years," said Reed.