Incoming N.J. Senate leadership team the most diverse in state history

An aerial view of the New Jersey State Assembly in Trenton

New Jersey State Assembly in Trenton, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

When the 219th state Legislature is sworn in at noon on Tuesday, New Jersey will have the most diverse Senate majority leadership team in its history.

Democrats, who hold a majority in both houses, recently named Sen. Nicholas Scutari as Senate President; Sen. Teresa Ruiz as Senate majority leader; Sen. Sandra Cunningham as Senate President Pro Tempore; Sen. Paul Sarlo as deputy majority leader; Sen. Troy Singleton as deputy majority whip; and Sen. Nellie Pou will serve in the newly created position of Senate majority caucus chair.

The new leadership team consists of two white men, three women, two African Americans, and two Latinas, according to a spokesperson for Senate Democrats.

It comes after some social justice advocacy groups had called for outgoing Senate President Steve Sweeney’s replacement to be a person of color, pointing out that the three most powerful positions in state government have been held by white men: the governor, the senate president, and assembly speaker.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

While that is still the case, Singleton, who is Black, said the incoming diversity on the leadership team is progress.

“I think it is a true … microcosm of what our state looks like. And for us, representation matters,” said Singleton.

Nearly 45% of New Jersey residents are people of color, according to the state’s Office Of Diversity and Inclusion. People of color will make up a majority of the state’s population before the end of the decade, some projections predict.

Pou, a Latina with 25 years of experience as a state lawmaker, echoed Singleton’s sentiments. She said Scutari put together a team she believes will work for all of New Jersey.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“This is a very unique, very important, and very historic opportunity for all of us to really hear from and have voices from all different sectors and segments of the population,” Pou said. “Having those voices come together collectively as one is really going to [allow us to have] very unique conversations.”

In the General Assembly, things will mostly stay the same: Speaker Craig Coughlin, a white man, will keep his position. Assemblyman Lou Greenwald, another white man, will remain as assembly majority leader, and Annette Quijano, a Hispanic woman, will continue serving as majority conference leader. Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, who is Black, will assume the role of Speaker Pro Tempore from Gordon Johnson, who was elected to the state Senate.

The incoming Senate leaders said they hope to address systemic issues like police brutality, racial inequities, and calls for reparations in new ways.

“[We will be] helping to shape not just what policy moves forward, but in what context it does move forward. I think that matters and will lead to different outcomes,” Singleton said.

“Legislation has its season. And while not disparaging any group of leaders who’ve ever sat around the table, I think the season that we’re in now, where we’re at in our country, and then having such a diverse group of people sitting around the table to frame public policy in our state, I think it now goes through a different prism that it hadn’t gone through before,” he added.

Overall, the new Legislature will be more diverse than the previous one, though it will still not reflect the state’s population, according to NJ Spotlight. Seventy percent of newly-elected state Senators and Assembly members are non-Hispanic white people and two-thirds are men — down from 73% percent and 69%, respectively, in the current session. New Jersey’s population is 52% white and 49% men.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal