- Associated Press - Monday, July 25, 2016

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - While New Jersey is making progress toward getting more women involved in politics, analysts and female lawmakers say much more can and should be done to increase the number of women who hold elected office.

In New Jersey, Democrat Bonnie Watson Coleman’s election in 2014 made her the first woman to represent the state in Congress in more than a decade and only 36 of 120 seats in the state Legislature are held by women. Of the state’s 75 cities with at least 30,000 residents, only eight are led by women.

Even as presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton attempts to shatter what she has called “the highest, hardest glass ceiling,” other women are testing other, lower ceilings around the country.

Though women are more than half of the American population, they now account for just a fifth of all U.S. representatives and senators, and one in four state lawmakers, according to an analysis by The Associated Press of data collected by the National Conference of State Legislatures. They serve as governors of only six states and are mayors in roughly 19 percent of the nation’s largest cities.

Kim Guadagno is currently serving as New Jersey’s first lieutenant governor, and is considered a possible candidate to replace Gov. Chris Christie when his term is up next year.

“There are a number of factors that come into play,” said Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics, which is a unit of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. “Women tend to seek office later in life, often for family-related reasons, so they have a shorter path in terms of political life.”

Sinzdak also points to institutional reasons like incumbency and says leaders from both parties need to put women forward as candidates and “women themselves should make their interest in running known to party leaders.”

To help boost the potential pool of female candidates, the center conducts a “Ready to Run” nonpartisan campaign training program for women who are thinking about running for office. It provides them with tools and tips for getting involved in politics and provides a “roadmap” for campaigning.

Noting that there already are many strong women leaders in the New Jersey Legislature and in communities around the state, Democratic Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt believes more women will seek office in coming years. She cites Clinton’s campaign as something that will motivate many young women to get involved.

Lampitt said women have to choose when it’s the right time of their life to seek office, calling it “a very personal decision.” She said her children were in middle and high schools when she first got involved in politics.

“At that age, they can understand if someone says their mom is a bad person or a bad lawmaker, they can defend her and themselves,” she said.

Democratic Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer said that when she first ran for that office in 2009, her male opponent, Peter Cammarano, portrayed her as a naive, stay at home mom who wasn’t up to the job. She lost by 161 votes, but then assumed the post less than a month later after Cammarano was arrested in a corruption probe. She won an election to complete the unexpired term and was re-elected to a full four-year term in 2013.

Zimmer said she has encouraged more women to get involved in politics and community matters, but noted that many people have been turned off by the “viciousness” of today’s political campaigns.

“I tell people to pursue their passions, because that’s how you get things done,” said Zimmer, who got her start in civic life by advocating for a park in Hoboken.

Wilda Diaz, a Democrat who is seeking her third term as Perth Amboy’s mayor in November, said female candidates are held to different standards. She cited fundraising as a major problem for many women, saying there is “little connection” between them and “political machines/big sponsors.”

“We have to work harder to develop relationships and create networks for people to invest in us,” she said. “We definitely are not treated the same in that regard.”

Diaz also stressed the importance of mentoring young women.

“We need them to be able to see themselves as leaders,” Diaz said, “and expose them to programs that educate women, offer mentoring from other elected officials and help them create a support of support network for raising money.”

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