Assemblywoman-elect Luanne Peterpaul will be first out lesbian in New Jersey Legislature
In January, Luanne Peterpaul will be the first out gay woman to become a New Jersey legislator, a move toward increasing LGBTQ representation in Trenton at a time when the queer community feels increasingly under attack in statehouses nationwide.
But while Peterpaul agrees that her victory has historic value, Peterpaul, 67, said her identity was never a focus of her campaign.
“That wasn’t what thrust me into politics or running,” she told the New Jersey Monitor. “It was really the quality of the candidates and our message that we want civility to come back.”
Peterpaul, a Democrat, will represent the 11th Legislative District in Monmouth County alongside her Democratic running mates Margie Donlon and incumbent Sen. Vin Gopal. She and Donlon won about 32,000 votes each, roughly 7,5000 more than their GOP rivals. The race in the 11th was one of the most closely watched legislative elections this year.
The Democrats’ win — which flipped party control of the district’s two Assembly seats — comes amid a wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation in statehouses across the country and controversies over discussion of LTBGQ issues in schools.
Peterpaul spent 12 years as the board chair of Garden State Equality, and also served as a municipal judge in Long Branch after spending time as a criminal prosecutor and assistant county prosecutor.
She’s no stranger to politics — Peterpaul coauthored an anti-bullying bill signed into law in 2011 by then-Gov. Chris Christie, and worked behind the scenes on the effort to legalize same-sex marriage in New Jersey.
All of this, she said, will help shape her upcoming term in the Legislature.
“I’ve seen so much on what people struggle with, how laws impact people — both negatively and positively,” she said. “The discourse right now, it’s horrible. We want civility to come back.”
LGBTQ representation in Trenton
Peterpaul will be one of two out lawmakers in the 120-member Legislature when its new session begins next year. Atlantic County Republican Don Guardian, who was elected to the Assembly in 2021 and just won reelection, also is gay.
The Victory Fund, a nonpartisan group supporting LGBTQ candidates running for elected office nationally, said Peterpaul’s win was part of a national “rainbow wave.” Sean Meloy, the group’s vice president of political programs, called this an “exciting time.”
“It’s great because she’s going to be the first queer woman in the Legislature — and New Jersey, it might be a blue state, but it’s not the easiest place for LGBTQ people,” he said. “Her breaking through and making history to bring that voice is really important.”
New Jersey will be on par with states like Nebraska, North Dakota, and Iowa for queer statehouse representation, according to the Victory Fund. New Jersey’s neighbors have better LGBTQ representation in their state legislatures, with seven each in New York and Delaware and four in Connecticut.
“There’s still a lot of work to do,” Meloy said. “It can’t just be the same old people, and that’s been an issue our candidates have faced in the past. Luanne was supported, and showed that it’s possible to win and being LGBTQ is a strength.”
Peterpaul touted the diversity of her ticket. Gopal was the first South-Asian American to be elected to New Jersey’s Senate.
“Electing the entire ticket sends a message. It’s important that everybody recognizes the representation,” she said.
Peterpaul said while she’s eager to advocate for legislation to help the LGBTQ community, she has a long list of legislative priorities for her first term. Between now and her Jan. 9 swearing-in, she plans on doing “a lot of homework.”
She wants to look into getting more resources for the elderly population, she said. She’s a caretaker for her 91-year-old mother and cared for her father until he died at 95 in August. Resources are out there, but accessing them is extremely difficult, she said.
Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex) cited her role as caretaker for her elderly mother as one of her reasons for retiring from the Assembly. Caretaking is one of several hurdles that keep women from serving in public office, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.
Peterpaul’s time in the courtroom piqued her interest in what criminal laws can be amended, she added. She noted the impacts domestic violence and substance abuse have not just on families but on society as a whole.
She also hopes to focus on improving affordability in New Jersey, particularly surrounding health care and property taxes.
“We need to do a lot of uplifting and supporting, especially for our young people who are our next generation that will be supporting us,” she said.
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