Fighting for a seat at the table

Alarmed by November election results, four New Jersey Democratic women are now challenging Republican incumbents for a spot in the state’s congressional delegation

(Update: Since the the original reporting for this essay, three of the four featured women candidates have pulled out of their district races - Katie Hartman in NJ3 and Linda Weber and Lisa Mandelblatt in NJ7.)

Millicent Fenwick was just freshman in the U.S. House of Representatives when she took to the mike at a National Press Club dinner in 1975 and introduced herself to her colleagues.

She regaled them with a few tales of her political life till then, including the time a male member of the New Jersey Assembly barbed her as she debated the Equal Rights Amendment a few years before.

“I like to think of women as kissable, cuddly and smelling good,” he said.

“That’s the way I feel about men,” Fenwick shot back.  “I only hope for your sake that you haven’t been as disappointed as often as I have.”

Fenwick was a hoot.

She smoked a pipe. She dressed like the fashion model and Vogue editor she’d been in her earlier years.

She was a Republican when that mostly meant being fiscally conservative but championed social justice issues, especially those concerning women, to the consternation of fellow party members.

She was feisty and fearless and, to a teenage girl growing up in New Jersey in the 1970s, she painted a bright picture of the future for women in politics.

But when Fenwick left Congress in 1983, just the fourth woman at the time to represent New Jersey there, only two women followed in her footsteps: Republican Marge Roukema, who served New Jersey’s 7th and then 5th Districts from 1981 through 2002 and Democrat Bonnie Watson Coleman, who’s represented New Jersey’s 12th District since 2015.

In New Jersey and elsewhere, women still stayed on the political sidelines, deterred from running as much by personal and family obligations as by a perception that parties and powerbrokers had little interest in grooming them for a life in public office.

Plenty snapped to attention after the November elections though, shaken to the core by the reality that a man so openly demeaning to women and hostile to the issues that affect and concern them would serve as the president of the United States, supported by compliant party loyalists.

Linda Weber, candidate for New Jersey's 7th Congressional District

Linda Weber, candidate for New Jersey's 7th Congressional District

They’ve also grown frustrated with representatives in Washington who are backing an agenda that belies the interests and beliefs of their constituents, women and families included.

And they’ve realized in short order that to have their voices heard, they need to be in the room.

Women have since been showing up in droves at political engagement training sessions offered by organizations like She Should Run, the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University (CAWP), and Emily’s List, the political action committee that backs Democratic women candidates. According to a running clock on that organization’s website, more than 15,000 have signed up to run for office since November.

“Women are energized now,” Debbie Walsh, the director of CAWP, said in a phone interview.

Count the women of New Jersey in, four of whom have already launched bids to unseat House incumbents, joining several fresh Democratic faces across the country set on flipping the Congress from Republican control in 2018.

Katie Hartman, an attorney from Moorestown, N.J. has announced her bid to defeat 3d District incumbent Tom MacArthur, the representative best known now for drafting the amendment that rescued the House Republican health care bill from the trash heap.

Linda Weber, a pioneer in internet banking from Berkeley Heights, and Lisa Mandelblatt, an attorney and teacher from Westfield, have both launched campaigns to unseat the 7th District’s incumbent Leonard Lance, a representative who’s abandoned the reputation he earned in the state legislature as a moderate, voting often now with his far-right colleagues.

And Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy helicopter pilot and federal prosecutor, is taking on the 11th District’s long-time incumbent Rodney Frelinghuysen who, as chair of the Appropriations Committee, is one of the most powerful Republicans in the House. Frelinghuysen has ruffled plenty of feathers in his district lately, voting in favor of the Republican health care bill and refusing to meet with his constituents, telling those critical of his far right voting record to back off instead.

“You know there’s that saying in politics, ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu,’" Walsh added. "I think a lot of these women feel that they’re probably going to be on the menu, and the things they care about will be on the chopping block.”

Ready to run

Nothing illustrated the gender problem in Congress more vividly than Vice President Mike Pence’s tweet of a photo back in March, showing him meeting with the all-male House Freedom Caucus to discuss whether maternity care was an essential service requiring mandatory health insurance coverage. 

The all-male House Freedom Caucus, discussing women's healthcare    

The all-male House Freedom Caucus, discussing women's healthcare


“A rare look inside the GOP’s women’s health caucus,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) said in a retweet of the photo.

Despite constituting more than half the population of the United States, women still hold less than 20 percent of the seats in Congress.

And the country ranks a paltry 101st internationally in terms of percentages of women elected to nationwide political bodies.

For the New Jersey women looking to change those numbers, the path to a spot in the state’s congressional delegation is rough.

In typical times, challenging an incumbent as a political newcomer is a real long shot, Walsh said, for men and women both.

But just getting on the ballot can be difficult for women, especially in New Jersey.

In addition to parenting and other caregiving distractions, women face a very strong political structure in the state, with county chairs and political bosses exercising enormous control over who runs and who doesn’t. That makes it difficult for women to get into a pipeline that starts long before a run for Congress.

It’s also very expensive to run in New Jersey, given that candidates have to buy in some of the most expensive media markets in the country, New York and Philadelphia, and women may have less moneyed networks to draw from to pay campaign expenses.

“But nothing is typical now. There’s a mood and a moment, and people are looking for fresh faces,” she noted.  “In some ways, nothing is newer or fresher than a woman’s face, given how few we have.”

Calling the November election “a collective wake-up call,” Walsh said that the record number of women attending the Center’s Ready to Run training this year felt deeply and urgently compelled to figure out a way to be more engaged in the political system.

“Women are showing up because they feel that can’t not be there,” she added. “They’re doing this for their families, for their communities, for their kids – it’s that level of drive and sense of commitment now.”

“You need to do this”

For the women challenging the Republican incumbents in New Jersey,  Donald Trump's victory in November certainly struck a chord, but their decisions to run go beyond the man and touch upon the more fundamental problem of having representatives they say are self-serving and out of touch with the needs and interests of their constituents.

“Clearly the results on November 8 made a huge difference in my decision,” Linda Weber said during an interview at the Plaza Diner in Union, N.J. Weber’s been active politically for years and even ran once, and lost, for a council seat in her Republican hometown.

“But I might not have made the decision to run had our current congressman, the 7th District’s Leonard Lance, not lined up his support behind Trump.”

Lance’s voting record, she noted, does not align at all with a moderate district that voted for Hillary Clinton in November.

Weber said she finally made the decision to run after she’d been speaking with disappointed voters about the election, including some younger women who’d come of age in work environments where plenty of women had seats at the table.

Lisa Mandelblatt, candidate for New Jersey's 7th Congressional District

Lisa Mandelblatt, candidate for New Jersey's 7th Congressional District

They never imagined that a woman many believed to be one of the most qualified candidates for president ever to run could lose to a man so apparently unfit for that office.

“I met with one, and the devastation and sadness in her eyes – that lit the match for me,” she said.

“Later that night I said to my husband,  “you know I need to do this.’ And he said, ‘I know you need to do this. And you need to do this.’”

Lisa Mandelblatt, also challenging Lance in the 7th District, said that despite years of political engagement and activism, she never thought seriously about running for public office.  Those in her community had other ideas though after November 8.

“I woke up after the election, distraught, horrified and dismayed,” she said over coffee at Rock ‘n’ Joe’s in Westfield, N.J.  “Then I started to think about what I could do.”

She began writing postcards, protesting outside of Leonard Lance’s office, and went to the Women’s March on Washington.

“My phone kept ringing off the hook though; people kept turning to me. Finally a friend asked if I’d called Emily’s List yet to find out about running,” she added.

"Then my husband said, 'You need to do this. Everybody I know thinks you should run.'"

For Mikie Sherrill, a run for public office always loomed in her future, an extension of a professional life built upon the virtue of service to country -- first as a Navy helicopter pilot and then as a federal prosecutor.

That commitment to service flipped the switch for her.

“I was very upset that the president was defending Russia over the FBI, the CIA, the intelligence agencies,” Sherrill said in a phone interview. “Those are men and women who are working very hard for their country, putting their lives on the line.”

At the same time, she pointed out, the incumbent in the 11th District, Rodney Frelinghuysen, was busy alienating his constituents by refusing to speak with them and betraying his reputation as a moderate.

“He’s voted in line with this administration, and his votes are far to the right of where this district is,” she said. “And he’s not fulfilling his duties as a representative, refusing to talk to constituents or hold a town hall.”

Katie Hartman, challenging incumbent Tom MacArthur in New Jersey’s 3d District, also disagreed with the result on November 8.

“But it’s really what’s happened since that’s most stunning to me,” she said in a phone interview.  “Congressional representatives continue to excuse things that are inexcusable and refuse to condemn things that need to be condemned. “

Katie Hartman, candidate for New Jersey's 3d Congressional District

Katie Hartman, candidate for New Jersey's 3d Congressional District

MacArthur, who moved from northern New Jersey into the south Jersey district two terms ago to run for the House seat, sold himself as a moderate, Hartman added. 

“He’s not a moderate. He doesn’t represent the interests of voters here,” she said.

“I know. I was born and raised here, I live here, I practice law here, I raised my children here.” 

Hartman said she was energized by the surge in women running for office and encouraged that others had joined her in New Jersey to change the composition of the state delegation.

“This isn’t happenstance,” she said. “The time is right.”

“Women are fierce, strong and determined. We’re taking ownership now, saying ‘look, our government does not represent us. We’ve got a problem, and we’re going to fix it.’”


Sharon McCloskeyAll, Essays