Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman says she is ready to work with President Trump and his administration in a veritable laundry list of legislative arenas: policies that will ensure protection of the most vulnerable; protect the government and its role; protect our country and our citizens; ensure equal opportunity for all people, and continue to protect our environment and working families; support a woman’s right to choose and receive equal pay for equal work; and ensure voting rights, reasonable gun safety legislation, access to good, globally competitive public education.
And, she adds, “I will support him as long as he respects legal citizens, legal residents, and the immigration that has made this country great.”
But she is equally ready to stand firm if Trump chooses a different path. “Any time the president advances an initiative, a policy, or an utterance that is counter-intuitive to any of those issues I have outlined, I will speak out against him, I will join forces against him, and I will lead when that is appropriate and will follow when that is appropriate,” she says.
Woman politicians are in the spotlight now more than ever, even in the wake of the defeat of the first woman presidential nominee. According to an estimate by Erin Chenoweth of the University of Denver, the women’s marches the day after the inauguration were the largest demonstrations in American history. Women’s groups and politicians like Watson Coleman hope to keep the momentum going and recruit more women to become politically active and even run for office.
Watson Coleman is cohosting — with the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers, Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, and all the women in the New Jersey Legislature — a networking reception to support CAWP’s nonpartisan leadership programs for New Jersey women on Monday, February 27, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Marsilio’s Kitchen in West Trenton; cost: $125. For information, contact Sue Nemeth at 848-932-8593 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The reception will raise money to build institutional capacity and support Ready to Run, a non-partisan campaign training program to encourage women to run for elective office, position themselves for appointive office, work on a campaign, or get involved in public life in other ways.
The event also supports NEW Leadership, a national project to educate college women about the important role that politics plays in their lives, introduce them to successful women leaders, and encourage them to become more involved in the political process. These are model programs designed and tested by CAWP and then franchised to institutional partners around the country, with training and sometimes seed money as well.
Watson Coleman — who represents New Jersey’s 12th district including most of Mercer and Middlesex counties — found her way to politics through the community and then political activism of her father, John S. Watson, who served for six terms in the state general assembly. His activist stance prepared her well for what she views as her role today.
Noting the large number of people from diverse communities who “are very concerned with what looks like the beginning of a very un-American presidency,” Watson Coleman says she supports protest. “Protest is a means of having that resistance manifested; it is a right under our Constitution; and it is a tool that will be used by this broad sector of citizens and interested parties to communicate to this presidency that seems to be deaf to what the people of this country expect from this presidency.”
To constituents who want to be heard, she advises that “they need to stay awake, alert, informed, and ready to mobilize.” She urges them to use any platform available to communicate with others and to form coalitions with those “whose rights are abridged and disrespected.” She also suggests that they march, protest, call, send letters to their government representatives, and “sit in when you have to go get attention to those who otherwise would not have their voices heard.” Finally, she urges all to register to vote and to encourage those around them to register and vote in every election.
Watson Coleman suggests she is in exactly the right place at this historical moment. “I’m really grateful to God to have this opportunity to work in this space at this time; this is the most difficult time in our recent history, an unprecedented and unknown president who appears woefully inadequate and unfit, so we don’t know what to expect,” she says.
Energized by the kind of responses she has seen both nationally and internationally to “what looks like tyrannical efforts on his part,” Watson Coleman says,“I am disheartened by this attack on our democracy.”
She is particularly concerned that the Republican-controlled Congress is either “willingly moving along with him or is scared of him.”
Coleman did not hesitate to condemn Trump’s January 27 executive order that suspended admitting Syrian refugees indefinitely and banned immigration from seven majority Muslim countries for 90 days.
Acknowledging that “there is some concern on the part of some Republicans about this unlawful Muslim ban,” Watson Coleman sees it as too little. “They are trying to find nice words that respectfully express a bit of opposition to the way things were rolled out; they are delicately trying to deal with this issue,” she says.
What most concerns her is what is absent on the part of Republican legislators. “I’m not hearing from Republicans the kind of rigorous opposition that I think should be heard,” she says. “I don’t see hope for them finding the right voice or the right pathway.”
Watson Coleman responded to the ban in a press release on January 28 and in remarks during a Congressional Black Caucus Special Order Hour. She expressed concern that “this will only serve to stoke anti-American resentment across the globe, including our international partners committed to eradicating global terror threats.” She was also concerned about individuals affected by the ban, in the 12th District and nationally.
Watson Coleman was born in Camden, but has lived the majority of her life in Ewing Township. She graduated from Thomas Edison State College. She and her husband, William, live in Ewing and have three sons, William, Troy, and Jared, and two grandchildren, William and Kamryn.
Watson Coleman talked about her own experience growing up as an African American in New Jersey as something she shared with pretty much any African American in this country. “I can remember as far back as in high school where there were things that happened to me either through the counseling department or with a particular teacher that I thought was unfair and designed to negatively impact my standing in the class,” she says.
Particular examples she cited during her experience at Ewing High School were “not being given the wisest counsel about choices for college” and having a teacher in a subject where she had been consistently getting all A’s choosing to give her a B+ instead of an A- “because that would have affected my eligibility for recognition in a particular department.”
She emphasizes that her experiences are by no means unique. “I have seen and experienced things just as every other African American in the country,” she says.
“There’s no dearth of experience in being challenged as an African American — on the simplest levels of going to a department store and being waited on, being recognized that you are next in line at a restaurant — that just is a part of our life,” she says. “Being an African American in this country presents challenges on every level of your actions.”
But, as happens in many African American families, she learned at home what she would be facing and how she needed to respond. “I had parents who told us that if you want to be considered equal to the job or the situation that you are seeking, you are going to have to be better, smarter, and work harder than those who are not minorities to be considered for those positions,” she says. “That was a fact, that was the way I was raised, and that was obviously the way I tried to conduct myself.”
As a result, she says, “I think we are very strong, resilient people — very hardworking, brilliant, loyal, and capable. I think that our orientation is to work hard, do our best, stand up for others, forgive, and demonstrate that love is stronger than any other emotion.”
Shiloh Baptist Church, where she is a former deaconess, and Christianity have played a formative role in her life. “My belief in God and my acceptance of Jesus as my savior informs the way I react and present myself every day. I start my every day in meditation and prayer and reading some aspect of the Word. I am very guided by my obligation as a person who is blessed to bless others; to share; to look after who are the least among us; and to stand for justice, equality, fairness, and righteousness.”
Even as a very young girl, Watson Coleman has always said what she thought. As she watched a policeman referring to her father as “boy,” and too young to realize the potential danger of criticizing the policeman’s actions, she says, “I yelled at him — how dare you call my father a ‘boy’; who do you think you are?”
At Ewing High School, she ran for president of her senior class but lost. Her leadership, she suggests, grows out of her willingness to say what she thinks, but also out of her ability to work with others. “I’ve always been outspoken — having an opinion about things that are important to me and that I am prepared to react to, and there were times when people echoed those same sentiments and followed me as I advanced in those discussions,” she says, adding that in her professional career she has always been a very effective administrator, manager, leader, and delegator.
Watson Coleman’s involvement in electoral politics goes back to her father, John S. Watson. He was a businessman, who over the course of his career owned a bar and a laundromat and was an insurance agent for a large insurance company. But later in life he focused on community activism, through a political action committee (PAC), formed, Watson Coleman says, by “a number of African American business owners in Mercer County who felt that the Democratic Party in particular had ignored the contributions that African Americans make.”
The PAC selected him to challenge the Democratic Party for a Mercer County freeholder’s seat, but he lost that first election. Subsequently he was appointed to the seat and then in 1970 was elected, becoming the first African American freeholder in the county. In 1977 he became the first African American director of a freeholder board in the county. Then he was elected to the New Jersey General Assembly, where he served for 12 years, and became the first African American legislator in the county to chair a legislature’s Appropriations Committee.
When Watson Coleman’s father retired from the legislature, she was a civil servant in the New Jersey state government. She was finishing a long career that began in the Division on Civil Rights. She later became an assistant commissioner of the Division of Community Affairs and finished her career at the Division on Housing.
As a self-declared “daddy’s girl,” she says that when he died, in 1996, and Shirley Turner vacated his seat to become a state senator, she “decided the way of honoring my dad — and keeping him alive and the legacy he left us — was to run for that seat.”
Her family, she says, found a bit of irony in her decision. “My daddy always wanted one of us to run for his seat,” she says. But Watson Coleman and her three brothers told him it was not going to happen. “We were not going to compromise our anonymity, what was left of it, and our privacy any more than he (my father) had already done by his being an elected official,” she says.
But when the moment came, Watson Coleman decided to run. “It was very important to me to honor my dad’s work because I had such tremendous love and respect for him,” she says. “That was my motivation for running for his seat.”
Watson Coleman’s own family legacy has been the source of controversy. She and her first husband, Jim Carter, divorced, and in 1995 she married William Coleman, a Baptist minister at Shiloh and a former New York City policeman. In 2000 two of her sons, William Carter-Watson and Jared C. Coleman, were sentenced to seven years in prison for robbing a Kids-R-Us in Lawrence Township. Since then, critics have used the sons’ arrest as grounds to attack Coleman’s stances on criminal justice reform, and on gun control.
But none of that has prevented her from repeatedly winning re-election for eight terms from 1998 to 2015.
“I think I worked in my father’s shoes but obviously made some tracks along the way that were mine,” she says. During her eight terms in the New Jersey General Assembly, Watson Coleman chaired the Appropriations Committee like her dad, and she also served as chair of the New Jersey Democratic Party and as majority leader of the General Assembly.
Watson Coleman partnered with the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and its Second Chance Campaign of New Jersey in a series of public hearings titled “Counting the Costs” as part of developing legislation passed in January, 2010, by the New Jersey Legislature to stop recidivism, strengthen families, prepare prisoners for work while in prison, and remove barriers to that work when they are released.
In education, she fought for “access to globally competitive public education for children, irrespective of where they lived.” She was also involved with the law on affordable and fair housing that exists today; supported increases in the minimum wage; sponsored legislation that created New Jersey’s first energy efficiency standards; and authored legislation to create New Jersey’s Office of the Comptroller to battle waste, fraud, and abuse in government spending.
Now in the U.S. House of Representatives — to which she was elected in 2014 to fill the seat vacated by Democrat Rush Holt — she says she is continuing to “absolutely (work) on those same things.” In addition she serves on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the House Committee on Homeland Security, where she is ranking member of the Subcommittee on Homeland Oversight.
In these roles, she says, “I have been able to broaden my portfolio of issues that affect quality of life, safety and security, opportunity, protection, and advancement of government working and doing the job that it was intended to do.” She has already had three bills passed related to homeland security and has introduced many types of legislation.
She is also an active member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Progressive Caucus, Caucus for Women’s Issues, and LGBT Equality Caucus.
She does not prioritize one set of issues over others. “I don’t think there’s a hierarchy, particularly under this unprecedented presidency where the rights and opportunities and protections in so many areas are being challenged,” she says.
On the positive side, she says, “I think we’re uniquely poised here to see a collaboration of different interests because I think this is the confluence of attacks on civil rights, whether of women, minorities, religions, LGBT, or persons who are part of working families and need protections or just need healthcare — all these are being negatively impacted by this administration in its short time.”
Because so many people’s civil rights are under attack, she says, “this is an opportunity for different constituencies and interest groups to come together and demand that democracy consider those things and protect those things it is supposed to protect.”
Watson Coleman, like her father, has made history, as the first African American woman to serve as majority leader of the New Jersey General Assembly and as chair of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee and the first to represent New Jersey in Congress. She is currently the only female member of New Jersey’s congressional delegation.
She has a number of goals: making corrections to the Voting Rights Act; achieving equity in educational opportunity; providing protections for workers, including right to work, decent conditions, and a decent minimum wage; passing a gun safety law that includes background checks, limits on amounts of ammunition, and clarity on who is entitled to buy guns and whether they can be purchased online; and protecting women “against government interfering in their most personal health decisions.”
Emphasizing that she represents everyone in her district, she says that Trump made promises “that are in some instances going to be very difficult to fulfill, especially those which are positive, like building jobs and things of that nature.”
Watson Coleman suggests that many who voted for Trump did so “in expectation of his just being different from Washington — not out of any sense of hate or dislike. They just wanted something different.” But, she adds, “We have to work very hard to ensure that something different doesn’t negatively impact people in this country.”
Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, 850 Bear Tavern Road, Suite 201, Ewing 08628. 609-883-0026. watsoncoleman.house.gov