By Gianluca D’Elia
U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12) is tired of being “first.”
In honor of Women’s History Month, she discussed her experiences as a legislator in Washington with students and the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics on March 10.
“One of the most striking things about women and minorities in politics, even today, is that our communities are still wowed by the fact that we’re the ‘first’ or the ‘only,’” she said.
Representing New Jersey’s 12th congressional district, she is the first African-American woman to represent the state. Watson Coleman said she is also currently the only woman representing New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania in Congress.
Currently in her first term in Congress, she previously served eight consecutive terms in the New Jersey General Assembly.
Though she is tired of “being introduced as the ‘first this, first that,’” Watson Coleman said being a black woman has influenced her thoughts on policy.
“I am passionate about bringing diverse perspectives to every level of government,” she said. “I don’t want to be the only black woman at the table.”
In the House of Representatives, Watson Coleman has been spending her first term advocating for progressive causes and fighting to advance the rights of minority groups.
“There are many discussions that can’t happen when [minorities] are not in the room,” she said.
Most recently, Watson Coleman announced on March 22 the formation of the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls, which seeks to “eliminate the significant barriers and disparities experienced by black women,” according to Politicker N.J.
Petra Gaskins, ’15, is a congressional staff member for Coleman and said she enjoys impacting those around her.
“Every day I’m helping people during the roughest times of their lives,” she said. “Whether I’m fighting for a claim filed by a veteran, helping someone afford health insurance or comforting someone trying to locate a loved one abroad, I’m making a difference. Plus I get to represent Rider and the perspective of college students.”
Reflecting on her experiences as a grandmother, Watson Coleman said she wants a better future for her grandchildren.
“I want my granddaughter not to doubt herself in any way,” she said. “I don’t want her to doubt that she will be chosen for any opportunity for reasons other than her skills and character.”
The congresswoman told students she had a “litany” of issues she wants Congress to address, ranging from Social Security and affordable health care to anti-discrimination laws for LGBT citizens and universal pre-K.
Watson Coleman called for a “smarter” approach to criminal justice, in which those who are incarcerated can “come out as whole citizens.”
As presidential elections approach, she also wants to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act, which overcame legal obstacles that prevented African Americans from voting under the 15th Amendment.
When Watson Coleman spoke about the presidential election, she said she felt sensitive to the criticism Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was receiving.
“A lot of it would not be something she’d have to endure if it were not for the fact that she’s a woman,” she remarked. “I think it’s particularly interesting that Hillary Clinton is considered the ‘establishment’ candidate. When I look back at history, I haven’t seen one woman elected president.”
Watson Coleman said right now is a rewarding yet difficult time to be involved in government on both a state and federal level.
“We know what’s happening in New Jersey and it’s not the only state, but a state that has Chris Christie as governor is just a little more unique,” she joked.
Nina Catrambone, a sophomore international business major who introduced Watson Coleman, said she felt empowered by the congresswoman’s public service.
“The drive she has to better the community she serves and beyond makes me proud to say she represents my state,” Catrambone said.
“Unless we, as a community of many are willing to support one another and lift up those who are most vulnerable, then none of us is ever free,” Watson Coleman said. “Because if it’s not you today, it could be you tomorrow.
“When you look at the direction this [presidential] debate is headed in, you can tell some people don’t have a clue. Some people have greater hate than love in pursuing their desire to lead this country. But I know us to be better than that. I know at the end of the day, we will see our way and we will do what is right for America.”