Voters in Trenton, New Jersey, have elected the state’s first-ever transgender municipal officeholder, delivering victory to Jennifer Williams for the city’s North Ward seat by a single vote.
Williams, the Trenton Republican municipal chair and member of the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment for the past 14 years, placed first in a four-way nonpartisan race during the first round of voting back in November. Because no candidate won more than 50% of the vote, a runoff election between the top two finishers was held on Dec. 6, pitting Williams against Algernon Ward, Jr.
Williams led in the initial vote count by 11 votes, but provisional and absentee ballots erased that gap, leaving her and Ward tied a 425 votes a piece in what was a low-turnout runoff election. Three voters decided to “cure” technical problems with their ballots by mail, allowing their votes to be counted and giving Williams a 427-426 edge.
The results are expected to be certified by Friday, Dec. 30, which will allow Williams to be sworn in as the new city councilwoman on Jan. 1, reports the New Jersey Globe.
Ward could still demand a recount or seek to challenge the election results, delaying Williams’ oath of office. If she is blocked from taking office, there would be no quorum for the city council, due to a pending Jan. 24 runoff to decide the winners for the council’s three At-Large seats.
As a result, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) would be forced to appoint four new councilmembers on a temporary basis to fill those vacancies until all winners could have their election certified and be seated.
“I am deeply honored, inspired, and excited to win this City Council race and to succeed Marge Caldwell-Wilson as North Ward City Councilperson,” Williams said in a statement, giving a nod to her predecessor, who had endorsed her candidacy.
“This was a tough campaign and my team and I worked very hard to reach every voter in every neighborhood. My message was clear that respect, honor and commitment would come back to Trenton,” she added. “I think voters responded by saying they want change in our city and a bright new future to come to the capital city. My opponent campaigned hard and as a fellow Trentonian, I hope we can work together to make our city better and especially so in our mutual commitment to our history.”
Williams told Metro Weekly in an interview that she knocked on over 2,500 doors during the campaign in order to introduce herself to North Ward voters — something she attributes to making all the difference in her campaign.
“I think people got to know me and know that I’m not like what they see on television,” she says. “Going out to meet these voters on their doorsteps, talking to people and having conversations, played a big role in our campaign.”
She also takes pride in the breadth of her support from her neighbors and fellow residents.
“One of the things I’m most proud of was our campaign, to paraphrase Rev. Jesse Jackson, was a ‘rainbow coalition.’ We had everyone: African-American, white, Latino support, male, female, non-LGBTQ+, LGBTQ+, Democrat, Republican, no affiliation at all. And that’s why this campaign worked, because we reached out to every voter,” Williams says. “We never took any voter for granted. We always went out with the attitude: ‘I’m not going to give you a chance to not vote for me.’
“It was a mom-and-mom operation,” she says, referring to the support she received from her wife, “but everybody pitched in.”
Williams says she emphasized environmental justice issues, abandoned housing and the problems that can stem from it, cleaner streets, and the need for economic development in the ward as part of her campaign.
“The North Ward, unfortunately, throughout my lifetime has been the stepchild of the city, and it was the most heavily industrialized going back to the 1800s, and it’s also currently the most poverty-ridden of the four wards,” she says. “There’s been a lot of neglect over many decades that needs to be reversed. But the North Ward is also the ward with the most hope. You have to look past the cracks in the sidewalks and the debris that may be in the street. There are gems in this in this ward, but it needs a lot of help. And that’s why I ran, because you can’t have a city where about one-quarter of the city population opens the door and they don’t have a chance to have a prosperous life.”
Asked whether she’s ready for the rough-and-tumble world of Trenton politics — which has gained the city infamy in recent years, with some councilmembers delving into personal, homophobic attacks against one another and other city leaders — Williams says she can handle it.
“I think you’re going to have a little bit of pugilism here and there, but you’re going to see a much more civil city council [than in the past], a group of people who want to work together and work in concert with Mayor [Reed] Gusciora,” she says. “We’re going to ask a lot of questions, but there are things that were basic ‘yeses’ that should have happened, like bond payments that needed to happen because we’re legally required to make them; or development projects, like a pharmaceutical company that actually wants to come to the North Ward and build a facility and start hiring people, which could create 30, 50 jobs.
“Five or 10 years ago, if you ever would say, ‘A pharmaceutical company wants to move to Trenton, New Jersey, people would say, ‘You’ve got that wrong, that has to be Princeton. No one comes to Trenton.’ But we have a chance to do that now.”
Williams says that the fact that there will be a number of new faces on the Council may help lessen the degree of animosity within the body.
“The one nice thing is we have only have one member coming back from the previous council, and we have six new members. We’ve gotten to know each other over these months. And I think going in, as long as everyone can check their ego at the door…I think we’ll be in great shape. Certainly nothing like the last council, because we can’t. The city has hit rock bottom. We have to lift it up and I think I’m ready for it,” she says.
“I’ve been in the city for my lifetime, being involved in government previously, actually even being an LGBTQ advocate and trying to lobby legislators around the country or in D.C. or even here in Jersey to do what they should be doing and doing the right thing for our community,” Williams adds. “I think that prepares you for something like this and you just can’t take it personally. You have to make sure you stay on mission, keep your eyes on the prize, and at the end of the day, don’t let yourself get pulled into something negative, because you don’t have to.”
These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and MetroWeekly.com remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!