Questions about Black representation in NJ politics – NJ Spotlight News

Credit: (Edwin J. Torres/ Governor’s Office: CC BY-NC 2.0; NJ Spotlight News)
The deaths of Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver and Sen. Ron Rice have had a big impact on Black leadership at the State House.

New Jersey no longer has three formidable Black politicians in office: Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, Sen. Ron Rice and Sen. Nia Gill.

Within the past year, Oliver and Rice died while in office. Gill was forced to run in a primary in a new legislative district this year. It was a race she lost to a veteran white lawmaker who announced his retirement a couple of months after that victory.

Oliver, Rice and Gill were champions of the Black communities they were a part of. Oliver focused on housing and affordability. She broke barriers as the first Black woman to hold some of her positions in office, and she was often the only Black politician — or person of color or woman — at top levels of government. Rice was known for his dogmatic pursuit of justice, not being afraid to speak his mind and push for civil rights policies. Gill sponsored numerous social and criminal justice bills to uplift their community.

“I think the key is that power is never given, it is taken. And courage is required. The leaders that we’re talking about that have transitioned, they stood in the gap for us and took the blows, were not afraid of the party systems,” said Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Passaic), who was handpicked by Rice to succeed him as chair of the Legislative Black Caucus.

With these legislators out of office, advocates and colleagues say it’s important to ensure Black voices are heard in the Legislature and that Black politicians are at highest levels of government.

An immeasurable loss

“That really is an incalculable loss in terms of the years of service, the specific focus on empowering Black people and other people of color, the understanding of the Legislature and the dynamics of New Jersey. And politics really is a blood sport in New Jersey,” said Ryan Haygood, president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

For Shennell McCloud, CEO of the civic engagement and social justice organization Project Ready, Oliver’s death made her think about the future of representation in New Jersey politics. She was “devastated” as a Black woman by the opportunities that are “now limited for (her) to be able to see fair representation in the Legislature, especially at (Oliver’s) level. She said she thought to herself, “Now what? Who’s next?”

‘I think part of why we haven’t moved big-rock issues in New Jersey in the last couple of years … is because the state remains segregated at the top.’ — Ryan Haygood, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice

“And how do we make sure that we can secure a seat like the lieutenant governor seat with someone who is a Black woman and a woman of color? And then my other thought was, how do we make sure that we can see more representation overall?” McCloud said.

Black politicians account for 15% of the Legislature, while the Black population of the state is 12%. Their colleagues argue that the loss of any Black legislator or legislator of color is monumental in an overwhelmingly white Legislature. No Black politicians or people of color hold any of the state’s top elected offices of governor, Assembly speaker and Senate president.

Deciding which bills will advance

High-level positions like Senate president and Assembly speaker have weight because they determine what bills can move through committees and go up for a vote. When she was Assembly speaker, Oliver pushed through pension reform, marriage equality and more during her tenure.

Credit: (NJ Senate Democrats)
Former Sen. Nia Gill

Now a slew of social justice initiatives remain stalled in the Legislature. Legislative Black Caucus members and social justice advocates say these bills, which include banning chokeholds by police, establishing civilian review boards to oversee police misconduct and a reparations task force, are tangible ways to end racist inequities in New Jersey. However, they have to be reintroduced every legislative session because they don’t move forward — something that advocates say could change if more Black people and people of color were represented at higher levels of government and could push these bills through.

“I think part of why we haven’t moved big-rock issues in New Jersey in the last couple of years … is because the state remains segregated at the top,” said Haygood.

Haygood said abolishing the “party line” on ballots could help more Black communities and people of color enter office. The state’s political party bosses determine who gets preferential placement on ballots, which often determines who wins, a practice that is the subject of a court challenge by advocates.

“As we think about who follows in the footsteps of these legendary legislators, it will be people who create a system that allows for that to happen, or deconstruct the current system,” said Haygood. “And the reliance on the line is one of the biggest barriers to bringing new Black and brown and other potential legislators into the democratic fold.”

Learning to lead

Another part of increasing representation means preparing people to run for office. McCloud’s organization, Project Ready, has partnered with Ignite, an organization that works on empowering young women, to create a program to help Black women run for office. Their program plans to mentor 60 Black women over the next three years — one person who graduated this past March is now part of Newark’s school board, a position that Oliver once held in East Orange.

“The bottom line is democracy is not a fair democracy without women. Democracy is not a fair democracy without having Black women at the table making some of these mission-critical decisions,” said McCloud.

McCloud and Sumter both said Black women are critical to winning elections. They have some of the highest voter turnouts and are among the strongest voting blocs year after year. They care about wealth gaps, inequitable education, mental health and maternal mortality, said McCloud, and want to see the policies they care about reflected in the work of the people they vote for.

“If we’re doing all of this work, and if we’ve been doing all of this work for decades upon decades, at what point do we get to say, ‘This is what I want? This is what I want to see?’

Why not us…in the seat?” McCloud asked.

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