The Victory Fund, a non-profit that raises money for queer candidates for public office, refers to the rising number of out elected officials as the “rainbow wave.” In New Jersey, LGBTQ politicians have been running for office and leading their communities for some time in New Jersey.
Mayors Reed Gusciora of Trenton and Christine Dansereau of Roselle were elected to their offices prior to the rainbow wave of 2019. Gusciora and Dansereau are administering positive change while sitting in the executive seats in their town’s top office.
Before becoming the mayor of Trenton, Gusciora had previously made history in 2006 by becoming the first-ever openly gay member of the New Jersey Legislature. A little over a decade later, he became the Capital City’s first openly gay mayor. The road hasn’t always been easy for Gusciora. In 2003, he lost the race for the Democratic nomination as Mayor of the Borough of Princeton, his previous home town. If there’s anything that we can learn from Gusciora, it’s never give up, and to believe in the process of your individual journey.
Gusciora was the NJ State Assembly Deputy Majority Leader and at another time the Assistant Minority Leader. He served as Chairman of the Assembly Regulatory Oversight, Federal Relations, and Reform Committee, and was a member of the Assembly Financial Institutions and Insurance Assembly Labor Committees.
While Trenton mayor, in 2019, he requested that the state government audit the city of Trenton’s books after finding several “budget discrepancies.” This prompted him to write a letter to Lt. Governor Shelia Oliver requesting assistance. “We want the process going forward to be transparent and accountable, and we want to make sure dollars are spent wisely in the city.”
Gusciora is an advocate against gun violence. Following a shooting in May 2019, Gusciora said: “Many young people are afraid to go out in the street because of gun violence.” Gusciora later said, “It’s indicative of gun violence across America, there are shootings every day. The federal government needs to address this.”
Christine Dansereau, a New York native and single mother, moved to Roselle in 1985 with her two children. She is the first out lesbian to hold executive office in Roselle, but she’s also the first female to hold the office in the town’s 132-year history. “I am grateful to receive the endorsement of the Roselle community who elected me to this body and to my colleagues who backed me on this journey,” Dansereau said at the time of her victory. “To be the first woman to hold this office in Roselle is an enormous honor, eclipsed only by what I know to be a promising and historic juncture in our Borough’s history,” she added.
Dansereau served as the 5th Ward Councilwoman for eight years and the later three years as Councilwoman-at-Large. Dansereau won reelection in 2019 defeating Donald Shaw and Antoine Armstead. As the creator of the Communication and Technology Committee, her administration brought communication and technology improvements to Roselle such as the borough website, a Facebook presence, and the Roselle Community Resource Guide.
All hasn’t been peaches and cream since she first won the most coveted seat in town, though. Dansereau’s home has been attacked twice; the first time with a brick shattering her front door and the second time, a brick hitting the shutter. Dansereau called the attacks low-level and didn’t let them distract her from her duties as mayor.
“I’m trying not to let it interfere with the more important matters.” The attacks were symbolic in nature, she thinks. “My door is open. If you have a difference of opinion, or you have concerns about whatever political views I may communicate, let’s get together and talk.”
Roselle has become a town attractive to families and small businesses due to incentives that the borough offers. The towns’ proven track record of developing and seeing through sustainable projects has won the town numerous awards for its leadership, including an award from the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey for being a leading community in addressing abandoned properties and restoring them to productive use.
Dansereau advocates for an end to domestic violence, gun reform, fair funding of schools, immigration rights, and equal wages for women. “The team begins with the community first,” Dansereau said. “We must never forget to serve them.”
The presence of LGBTQ candidates is necessary, say activists. In 2017, more than 120 bills described as “anti-LGBTQ” were introduced across 30 states. Laws that controlled adoption procedures and the not-so-popular bathroom bills were among them. By January of 2018, 12 of them had become law.
“A lot of people have stepped up and said: I think I can do this now,” said Sean Meloy, senior political director at the Victory Fund. “It’s not a deal-breaker to be LGBTQ. The community is no longer looking for support from politicians; we’re running for political office.”
In 2019, Carol Rizzo of Neptune Township won the “At Large” seat and was the first lesbian mayor of that town. Michael DeFusco in Hoboken City won his seat representing Ward 1 on the town’s City Council. Bloomfield’s Rich Rockwell and Wartyna Davis both won the “At Large” seats for Town Council.
Since the election of the first out-LGBTQ person to political office, Harvey Milk in San Francisco 45 years ago, about 700 of the country’s 500,000 or so elected officials are members of the LGBTQ community. Here in New Jersey, there are about 11,000 elected officials, and more than 40 self-identify as LGBT.
LGBTQ representation matters. When it comes to politics, New Jersey is not just talking the talk, but, finally, walking the walk.