Exclusive Interview With Bonnie Watson Coleman
May 16, 2020
Bonnie Watson Coleman has been a member of the House of Representatives for New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District (which means that, if you live in Mercer County, Middlesex County, Somerset County, or Union County, she represents you) since 2015, and in her time there has advocated for criminal justice reform, the rights of working class families, rebuilding infrastructure to support job creation, and restructuring the economy to serve everyone. The first African American women to represent New Jersey in Congress and a democrat, Congresswoman Watson Coleman has helped to write the Healthy MOM Act, in order to ensure health coverage rights for women who have become pregnant and the End-Prisons-for-Profit Act, to work towards banning the use of private prisons and combat mass incarceration, among many other efforts to defend vulnerable communities.
As a member of the House of Representatives, it is Congresswoman Watson Colman’s job to ensure the safety and wellbeing of her constituents by representing them in Congress, a feat which, during this time, is likely difficult. I had the opportunity to virtually interview her to get some insight into what Congress is doing right now, how that will affect our community, and what advice Congresswoman Watson Coleman has for the Princeton Day School community.
Question: According to the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, over 200,000 New Jersey workers have applied for unemployment benefits since the coronavirus outbreak spread to New Jersey. How many people in our district have applied for unemployment benefits? How many have been hospitalized/died?
Unfortunately, the state hasn’t broken down the number of unemployed in each congressional district. We won’t know that number for some time. The Department of Labor has seen about a 1000% increase in claims over the past month. In the first month of the shutdown more people applied for unemployment assistance than in all of 2019. This influx has put an unbelievable strain on the Department of Labor. The primary call our office has gotten over the past month is people struggling to get unemployment assistance.
Mercer County does not publish the number of deaths in each town. However, we’ve seen 85 deaths in Franklin Township and over 83 deaths in Monroe. The towns with the highest rate of infection appears to be Plainfield (where 1-in-30 residents have tested positive), followed by Bound Brook and Dunellen.
You recently passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act with Congress, a two trillion dollar emergency aid package. How specifically does this package help your constituents and what are you doing to address the numbers you just mentioned, either in Congress or personally?
Part of the problem we’re seeing in New Jersey is the amount of funding we’re getting from the federal government to fight COVID-19 is not proportionate with the severity and high rate of cases here. To that effect we signed a letter with the delegation of New Jersey and New York to address this disparity. We’ve also led a letter to house leadership to ensure that all essential workers have the PPE they need as well as paid sick time to self-isolate should they be exposed. I’m fighting for more direct payment to states. Our Essential Pay for Essential Work act would give an extra $15 per hour to all essential workers including grocery store clerks, gas station attendants, and nursing home staff.
The House was supposed to reconvene on May 4 but was unable to do so in person. Will voting be virtual or in person moving forward, and if in person, what efforts will be taken to stop the spread of COVID-19?
Since shutdown orders have gone into effect, virtually all House legislation has been related to coronavirus. The risks involved with gathering together of people (especially considering that members of congress tend to be older) have necessitated that business be limited to coronavirus related bills. On Wednesday, my appropriations subcommittee met to interview a former head of the CDC under President Obama and a doctor from Johns Hopkins. You can find that here:
There has been talk about allowing members to vote remotely though that hasn’t taken off. There has also been talk of members designating other members to cast their vote for them – what’s known as a proxy vote. That has yet to advance.
April was Sexual Assault Awareness month, an issue especially relevant to high schoolers at this time. Is Congress or are you personally looking into any resources or initiatives to help survivors of sexual assault during this time, when hospitals are filled and populations facing housing instability are increasing?
On April 30th we held a FB Live conversation and town hall with Dr. Michael Lindsey and Ms. Kimme Carlos about mental health resources during the shutdown. We touched on some of the topics of domestic abuse and resources. You can find it here.
We’ve also put resources on our website here.
I was alarmed by the actions taken by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to weaken protections for victims of on campus sexual assault. It is important that while the country goes through this tumultuous period it don’t ignore our oversight role. A lot of bad things can be accomplished while no one is looking.
During this pandemic, the Administration should be prioritizing providing much needed resources and relief for students and schools. Instead, it's taking action to make schools less safe. https://t.co/2owzDSvZWU
— Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (@RepBonnie) May 8, 2020
Do you have any reassuring messages for those of us scared of the spread of the coronavirus, our health deteriorating, and a loss of employment opportunities for ourselves and our families?
If you’ve been laid off or are working from home, please listen to health officials. Social distancing, wearing a mask, increased hand washing, may be inconvenient but are part of our best chance at keeping everyone safe. If you follow them and limit exposure to others your chances of contracting coronavirus are quite low.
Many people do have to continue to go to work. We’ve seen many jobs that were previously rarely recognized now be seen as essential. They deserve protection and compensation. We’re fighting for those things in Congress, but if you’re not getting the protections you need you must speak out. Our office is always available to take their calls.
If this district, or America generally, could come out of this pandemic having learned one thing, what would it be?
Our country has an opportunity to come out of this crisis more committed than ever to each other. Governor Murphy often refers to us as one big New Jersey Family. We’ve seen examples of that every night on the evening news. Neighbor helping neighbor, kindness extended to complete strangers, people forming friendships and bonds they’d never held before. I pray when this is over we continue that mentality. We’re all in this together.
Do you have any advice for teenagers during this time?
I first want to say that I’m truly sorry that your school year hasn’t gone as planned. Especially our seniors who lost out on some great memories. Though, knowing my grandchildren, I’m sure they’ve been able to forge ones over the many means of online communications. I’ve been impressed with how many young people have taken this in stride. They’re taking the precautions necessary to keep their loved ones safe, even though the risk to them is quite low. We all appreciate those efforts. Thank you.