Metro Weekly

Will Jennifer Williams Be New Jersey’s First Transgender Councilmember?

A transgender Republican, Jennifer Williams is currently locked in a tie for a Trenton City Council seat.

Trenton City Council candidate Jennifer Williams – Photo courtesy Jennifer Williams

Jennifer Williams, who could become the first-ever out transgender municipal official elected in the state of New Jersey, is locked in a tie with her opponent, Algernon Ward, Jr., to represent Trenton’s North Ward on the City Council.

Williams led in the initial tally by 11 votes. But late-breaking provisional and absentee ballots erased that edge, leaving the candidates tied at 425 votes each in a Dec. 13 runoff election, which came on the heels of a Nov. 8 general election that was marked by low turnout in the Democratic-leaning city. 

Six “cure” letters were sent out in the North Ward, meaning six individuals who submitted spoiled ballots have the chance to clarify which candidate they intended to support. But if the candidates remain tied after all votes are tabulated, there is currently no procedure in place for breaking the tie.

According to Williams, the prospect of a tie is uncharted territory — so much so that even city and county officials give different answers to what the next steps are.

If she ultimately emerges successful, Williams would be the first out transgender municipal officeholder in New Jersey history.

There have been two other out transgender individuals elected to school board positions in New Jersey, including Daniella Mendez, a current member of the Dover Board of Education. No transgender individual has ever been elected to the state legislature.

Williams told Metro Weekly in an interview she’s hopeful and optimistic that the “cured” ballots will break in her favor, determining the winner of the race.

“It’s strange, but I always felt calm about this race in a lot of ways,” she says. “I felt there was a chance I could actually win because I was born in Trenton, I grew up here, and I know my city enough to know I wouldn’t have problems getting elected as an openly LGBTQ person. When people get to know you, they meet you, they get to see what you can do, they believe in your abilities and your skills, they can see that you care about them, about what they want, and about trying to make the city better.”

Williams knew that she could not rely on press or mail pieces for her campaign to be successful, but had to meet voters in person, at their front doors, in order to overcome any negative press coverage she might receive due to her gender identity. 

“I learned from previously running [for Assembly] that I had to meet voters on their doorstep,” she says. “They had to meet me, look me in the eye, and have a conversation. That’s what made a difference.

“We talked to so many voters who shared the same issues about how our city isn’t bringing in jobs or economic development, crime, clean drinking water, the basics of life. And that’s what we campaigned on.”

Williams encountered some blatant transphobia on the campaign trail, with one voter even calling her a slur while speaking on the phone to another person with Williams still in earshot. She also encountered some online harassment, but was impressed with how quickly offenders who badmouthed her using homophobic and transphobic language were banned from some local online community forums after being flagged by fellow Trenton residents of all orientations.

Williams notes that some people took issue with her political affiliation, but believes meeting them in person and discussing pressing city issues helped stem some of that anti-Republican sentiment, although only a few dozen people ever explicitly mentioned it to her in the course of her door-knocking efforts.

“I think it was that legwork that made all the difference,” she says of her first-place finish during the initial election round and her better-than-expected performance in the runoff that has her on the cusp of becoming an elected official.

“It’s funny to say it, but someone told me, a few weeks back, that ‘Our city has fallen so far that even a white transgender woman who happens to be a Republican can get elected to City Council because people want change so much,'” Williams recalls. “I think people also got to know me and see that I’m not like what they see on television when it comes to trans folks.”

Williams likened the experience of campaigning to a mini-coming out process.

“When you’re campaigning and knocking on doors, you have to present yourself to somebody,” she says. “You have to kind of tell them what you’re about. And then you have to step back and hope that they accept you as a candidate.

“And in some strange way, having to do that thousands of times, it’s a little bit of a taste of the coming out process. When you come out, you have a conversation with somebody and say, ‘This is who I am and what I’m about.’ And then you have to wait for that person to say they’re going to accept you and then, hopefully, affirm you.”


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