In New Governors’ Cabinets, Diversity Is Priority

Ralph Northam and Phil Murphy, both recently sworn in, are already making history.
by | January 16, 2018
Gurbir Grewal
Prosecutor Gurbir Grewal addresses the press after New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy nominated him for attorney general. He would be the first Sikh-American AG of any state in the country. (AP/Jeffrey Granit/NJ Advance Media)

The new governors of New Jersey and Virginia -- both Democrats elected in November -- each already made history with their cabinet choices.

In the wake of historic 2017 victories for female candidates, the #MeToo movement and the Women’s March, women will make up a majority of the Virginia cabinet for the first time ever and will come close or equal to that in New Jersey, where Gov. Phil Murphy's picks have included at least eight women (Murphy is not yet done with his appointments).

Murphy's cabinet nominees are also notable for their racial and ethnic diversity. They include the first Sikh-American attorney general of any state in the country, the first Muslim-American cabinet official in state history, the first African-American -- and first minority -- to lead the New Jersey National Guard, and the first Latina to lead the state’s banking and insurance department.

“We can, and will, stand for the right things,” Murphy said in his inaugural address on Tuesday. “We begin by having a cabinet and leadership team in place that looks like the state we now proudly serve. This was my first promise, and it has been kept.”

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam chose women for eight of the 15 available cabinet jobs. The last time women came close to having a majority there was 1986 when the governor’s cabinet was half men and half women.

“I’m honored to have this formidable group of experienced, accomplished female leaders joining me in working to build a Virginia that works for everyone, no matter who you are, no matter where you live,” he told The Washington Post.

 
 

So far, 47 percent of Murphy’s cabinet appointments have been women. If that percentage continues, he would have the highest percent of women in the cabinet in New Jersey history, says Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. (The highest level so far was Gov. Jon Corzine who at one time had a cabinet that was 43 percent women.)

“It really says a lot about how much our culture has changed. It’s very significant. You’d be lucky if 30 percent of a cabinet was female 10 years ago,” says Sinzdak. “It’s only two governors, but with so many governors (36) up for election this year, what they do next year will be really fascinating to watch.”

In New Jersey, prominent women have pushed for years to increase the number of women in high government positions.

A group called the Bipartisan Coalition for Women’s Appointments asks gubernatorial candidates to commit to naming women to high posts. Murphy pledged to do so, but during his transition, the bipartisan group raised concerns that too many of the top officials preparing for Murphy’s governorship were men. Sinzdak says the transition team took the criticism to heart.

The percentage of women serving in the New Jersey cabinet has risen significantly since Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, New Jersey’s only female governor, served in the late 1990s. Sinzdak says people in the state took notice when 30 percent of her cabinet nominees were women.

“Whenever a bar is set or raised, it does seem like other governors are rising to meet it,” Sinzdak says. “It’s really heartening to see the trend go in this direction.”

Exit polls showed that Northam and Murphy, both white men, lost among white voters in November but were carried to victory by strong showings among black and Hispanic voters. In Virginia, Northam lost among men but won by a bigger margin among women. Murphy, who ran against a woman, won among both men and women but did slightly better among male voters.