The NJ governor’s office has been an all-white affair. Here’s how to break the trend

There have been 56 governors in New Jersey’s history. Since the first was elected in 1776, all but one has been male. They also share another trait: None has been a person of color.

New Jersey’s next gubernatorial election is more than two years away, but two prominent candidates have already declared for the race — both of them white men.

The sudden death this summer of Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, the highest-ranking African American woman in state history, put the monochromatic ranks of Garden State chief executives in further relief. Academics and political activists say it’s a reminder of the obstacles facing candidates of color even in a steadily diversifying New Jersey — where 45% of the population is nonwhite or of mixed heritage and more than a fifth are Latino, according to the 2020 census.

Gov. Phil Murphy has until mid-September to appoint a new lieutenant governor. Advocacy groups like the United Black Agenda have already called for him to fill the post with another Black woman. 

Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, right, waves as former governor Jim McGreevey applauds before a budget address at the New Jersey Statehouse in February. Oliver, the highest ranking African-American in state government history, passed away suddenly on Aug. 1.

There are candidates who could break the trend in the upcoming cycle, but they need to start soon, said Patricia Campos-Medina, a civil rights advocate who worked on former Gov. Jon Corzine’s 2009 reelection campaign.

“I always say that candidates of color have to claim a space for themselves to run,” she said. “By claiming it, they make themselves viable. I would say you can’t wait for somebody to say you should run.”

So far just two major party candidates have declared publicly for the 2025 election: Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, a Democrat, and former state Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, a Republican who lost to Murphy in 2021.

Any person of color with aspirations to lead the state faces two major challenges, said the Rev. DeForest “Buster” Soaries, a Montclair native who served as New Jersey’s first Black secretary of state from 1999 to 2001. The first is the substantial amount of money needed to run for governor. The second: the county political bosses in both parties who are often the gatekeepers in deciding who gets the Republican and Democratic nominations.

Across New Jersey’s 21 counties, just three of the Republican county chairpersons and six of the Democratic chairs are nonwhite.

“They control who is and who is not the candidate on the party line,” Soaries said. “The person endorsed by the county chair 98% is who gets the nomination from that county.”

Location, money and support

Sandwiched between the New York and Philadelphia TV markets, New Jersey is an expensive place to attain statewide name recognition, and even more so to run a full-fledged campaign. Candidates of color may start with even less financing and fewer political allies, Soaries said.

Both Murphy and Ciattarelli spent heavily in the 2021 governor’s race, with the Democratic incumbent investing $16.4 million while the Republican challenger shelled out $15.8 million.

In that environment, politicians of color need more support from both within and outside of their communities, said Campos-Medina. She is president of Latina Civic Action, a group formed to get more Latinas elected to political office.

Oliver remembered:Hundreds of mourners honor ‘trailblazer’ Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver at memorial

“As Latinos, we need to invest more in our political leadership; we need to demand more from our business community [and] business leaders to invest more in the political leadership of our Latino community,” said Campos-Medina. “And we also need to demand that the political class actually start investing resources on politicians of color.”

“It’s not an open political system,” added Dan Cassino, a professor of government and politics at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison. “It is, and to this day still is, a closed system built around the political machines. It’s very hard to get a candidate who’s a grassroots candidate who comes in from nowhere with public support and then works their way up. Much more common in New Jersey politics is that we get top-down candidates.”

“If you have a bunch of white guys looking to recruit candidates,” he continued, “they’re likely to know, and recruit, more white guys.”

An FDU poll conducted by Cassino in January about potential early leaders in the 2025 race found that U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherill, first lady Tammy Murphy and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka had the highest favorability ratings among Democrats, with Fulop trailing behind. Among Republicans, Ciattarelli and talk show host Bill Spadea were the frontrunners.

Baraka is African American; the others are white. The poll also mentioned U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, though he has said he does not plan to run, and Oliver, then lieutenant governor, who died Aug. 1.

Since the poll’s release, Fulop has picked up endorsements from one state legislator, 12 mayors, two Democratic County officials, one county organization and seven labor unions.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka speaks during the March 4 funeral for Sayreville Councilwoman Eunice Dwumfour.

Who could break the mold?

Baraka, first elected in 2013, is the candidate best-positioned to break the streak, political observers told The Record and The 53-year-old Newark native has a strong political base in New Jersey’s largest city as well as a good relationship with the business community, Soaries said. Cassino noted his ability to work within the Essex County political system.

Baraka said in an interview with WCBS-TV in January that he was not ruling out the possibility of running for governor.

“I think people should think that it’s possible for me or somebody like me to be the governor of the state of New Jersey,” he said.

Eight months later, Baraka, in a brief interview with, said he is still considering a run but did not say when he will announce his decision. He said there are factors he has to weigh.

“Like any other person would think, your family should be OK with your decision. Obviously, you have to raise the money and you have to have the proper organization,” Baraka said Friday. “It’s not an individual decision that you make, and it’s not arbitrary.”

Other potential governors mentioned by the pundits included Booker; state Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz of Newark; state Sen. Vin Gopal of Long Branch and Assemblyman Raj Mukherji from Jersey City. On the Republican side, experts cited Woodcliff Lake Mayor Carlos Rendo, the running mate of former Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno when she ran for governor in 2017. Booker is African American; Ruiz and Rendo are Latino, and Gopal and Mukherji are of Indian descent.

Campos-Medina said a potential minority candidate for New Jersey governor needs to start running as soon as possible to build momentum and carve out a place in what could be a crowded field.

“It is very intimidating to run for governor in New Jersey,” she said. “It is like a power game, like ‘Game of Thrones.’ Do you announce early and then you have a secure political space, so you don’t get burned? But if you wait and you see what happens, then people have committed to other candidates.”

More:Affirmative action ruling won’t deter Rutgers, Princeton diversity pushes, officials say

Race against the machine

Any pioneer, Campos-Medina added, will have to be someone with “the credibility with the grassroots to gain momentum outside the political machines” who can then force the old guard “to pay attention to them.”

Cassino sees an opening in the faltering power of political bosses, particularly in South Jersey. That could allow someone from outside the system to win a nomination for governor, he said.

Amber Reed is the president of AAPI Montclair, a nonprofit group formed in 2021 to deal with anti-Asian hate. She said she hopes to see a New Jersey governor of Asian descent in her lifetime.

“We are 11% of New Jersey’s population now, and I think we hold 1% of elected offices at any level, and most of them are school board seats,” Reed said. “So it’s pretty spare, and we feel the difference, although we have wonderful allies in Trenton.”

Kristoffer Shields, the director of Rutgers’ Eagleton Center on the American Governor, was also hopeful that a formidable candidate of color could emerge in the next couple of gubernatorial election cycles.

Shields looks at the lieutenant governor’s position, which didn’t exist in New Jersey before 2010 but now could enable candidates from underrepresented communities to have a better opportunity to become governor.

Political parties, nonprofits and public interest groups should invest more in the recruitment of nonwhite candidates for other New Jersey offices, he added. That would grow the pool of those who could become future governors.

However, Shields cautioned, “I think there’s hope in the next couple of cycles, but I think there is an awful lot of work that’s left to be done that keeps me from being optimistic.”

A historic dearth of diversity

Jim Johnson of Montclair, a former U.S. Treasury Department official, is one of only a handful of nonwhite candidates who have sought New Jersey's top office. Johnson finished a distant second in the 2017 Democratic gubernatorial primary behind Phil Murphy.

A handful of candidates of color have sought the two major party nominations for New Jersey governor, though none has succeeded.

Jim Johnson of Montclair, a former U.S. Treasury Department official who is Black, finished a distant second in the 2017 Democratic gubernatorial primary behind Phil Murphy. On the Republican side, Indian American businessman and engineer Hirsh Singh came in third in the 2017 and 2021 primaries.

Soaries, the former secretary of state, said the lack of diversity is no surprise, given how few Black governors or lieutenant governors have served across the nation. Besides Oliver, the list includes Douglas Wilder, who was elected Virginia’s first Black governor in 1989; Deval Patrick, who did the same in Massachusetts in 2006; and David Paterson, who led New York State from 2008 through 2010. Since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, when Oscar Dunn and P.B.S. Pinchback were the first Black governors of Louisiana in the 1870s, only 27 people who are minorities have been governors, three of them women.

“The New Jersey experience really aligns with the American experience. The American experience really is significantly impacted by the impediments to voting for Black people that were addressed in the 1965 Voting Rights Act,” Soaries said. “The fact that we have had any Black governors anywhere is a sign of the progress we’ve made since 1965.”

Ricardo Kaulessar covers race, immigration and culture for For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.


Twitter: @ricardokaul

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