Bonnie Watson Coleman

Continuing a Family Legacy of Public Service

By Anne Levin

At Princeton Council’s annual reorganization meeting on January 4, 2021, New Jersey Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman enthusiastically administered the oath of office to new Mayor Mark Freda and newly elected Council President Leticia Fraga. Less than 48 hours after the virtual ceremony, the Ewing resident was huddled with more than 100 other lawmakers and staff in a crowded office at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

It was January 6, the day a mob of insurgents roamed the halls stalking members of Congress — Democrats, like Watson Coleman, in particular — in their violent attempt to halt the lawful certification of the presidential election. When she was diagnosed with COVID-19 a few days later, she issued a press release saying she believed she contracted the virus from lawmakers who declined to wear masks during the protective isolation.

Watson Coleman was fortunate. After an infusion of monoclonal antibodies, she experienced mild symptoms and recovered quickly. She rested briefly but was soon back at work, venting her anger in television interviews and an editorial for The Washington Post.

Bonnie Watson Coleman speaking at the 2017 Women’s March in Trenton, New Jersey.

On February 13, when Donald Trump was acquitted by the Senate on an impeachment charge of inciting the insurrection, Watson Coleman was quick to issue a statement: “Republicans have shown, yet again, that they are not actually interested in the rule of law so much as they’re interested in showing fealty to Donald Trump and his dangerous, destructive brand of politics. They have displayed that no amount of reason can break through the stranglehold he has over many of them. It’s time for Democrats to move forward on COVID relief and other important business without them.”

Watson Coleman did just that, hosting a tele-townhall February 25 on COVID vaccine safety and distribution. “My number one priority is crushing this virus,” she said in an interview a few weeks earlier. “We want to make sure everybody has access to the vaccine, and that we eliminate any disparities, and that Biden’s plan is executed.” 

A 76-year-old cancer survivor, Watson Coleman shows no signs of slowing her pace. She is currently serving her fourth term as a U.S. Representative for New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District. She was the first Black woman to represent the state in Congress. She served eight consecutive terms in the New Jersey General Assembly and was the first Black woman to serve as majority leader and as chair of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.

Two decades ago, two of Watson Coleman’s three sons pled guilty for holding up a Kids “R” Us store in Mercer Mall. They served five-and-a-half years in prison. Watson Coleman not only acknowledged the situation, she turned it into a platform for change. While serving as majority leader, she convened a year-long series of public hearings on reforms to prisoner re-entry programs, and moved legislation through the Assembly on prisoner rehabilitation and release.

More recently, Watson Coleman and two colleagues founded the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls. She is an active member of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. The list goes on.

Bonnie Watson, right, celebrating at her 12th birthday party.

Born in Camden and raised in Ewing, Watson Coleman grew up in a family immersed in political life. Her father was John S. Watson, a well-known local figure who served six terms in the New Jersey legislature. A street is named after him in Ewing.

“I am one of four children. My family always had a shared dinner, and my father would require that we eat together. That’s when we talked about current events and politics,” she said. “Both of my parents were good listeners. They didn’t dismiss us because we were young. From a very early age, we were taught we had a responsibility to use whatever gifts were given to us to help others. Whatever resources were at our disposal, we had a responsibility to help.”

There was often someone bunking with the family. “If one of us had a friend who needed a home for a while, we put an extra bed in one of the rooms,” Watson Coleman said. “That kind of carried over. We always talked about issues, responsibilities, what does it mean to be Black, and things of that nature. So, we all grew up not really seeking public service careers, but having them. My father was a Mercer County freeholder first [before becoming an assemblyman], and my oldest brother [Trenton Parking Authority Chairman Bill Watson] and I got very involved in his campaign. From then on, we started paying attention not just to what was happening, but why it was happening.”

Before entering politics, Watson Coleman spent 28 years in the executive branch of New Jersey state government. She began in the Division on Civil Rights. She later became an assistant commissioner of the Division of Community Affairs and finished that part of her career at the Division on Housing. “I have always been about enforcing laws or protecting or developing regulations for people who would otherwise have been ignored, marginalized, or hurt,” she said.

Bonnie Watson Coleman and Nancy Pelosi speak after a Prescription Drug Roundtable at the Henry J. Austin Center in Trenton.

Watson Coleman lives in Ewing with her husband William, in a house built on land that her father gave her “so that we would always be near,” she said. Despite her busy schedule, family is clearly a priority. Spending time with her 8-year-old granddaughter Kamryn is among her greatest pleasures. So is watching movies on The Hallmark Channel. “My family laughs at me about it,” she said. “But I love them because they always have a happy ending.”

When we spoke in late January, Watson Coleman had yet to return to Washington. Trump’s second impeachment trial had not yet begun. “It is very tense and concerning right now,” she said. “Not only are we concerned about safety and security in Washington, we are concerned in our districts. So as these investigations are taking place, we realize we don’t fully comprehend the magnitude of this insurrection. We need to get to the bottom of it.”

Recalling January 6, Watson Coleman said she and others were locked in an office for a few hours. “I could hear the mayhem,” she said. “I could hear the chant ‘USA, USA, USA.’ I could hear the scuffling, but I really couldn’t discern that much.”

Someone knocked loudly on the door and said they were security. “I said, ‘Show me your badge,’ she said. “One of them did, over the transom; the other slid his under the door. They said they had to move us to a secure location. They took us down through tunnels where we had been earlier, and then up to one room. There was no TV in there. We really didn’t have a sense of what was going on, though some were on their phones giving out interviews. We stayed there until they cleared it. There was no social distancing, and some people didn’t have masks on. One of my colleagues tried to give them masks, and they weren’t taking them.”

At the time, Watson Coleman was more puzzled than scared. “I believed that security would protect us,” she said. “I didn’t realize how compromised security was. Afterward, when reliving it, I saw some of the damage when we did go back in and vote. I realized, oh my God, they intended to harm us and disrupt the government. It was something we never expected to see in the United States of America. I have had to resist the what-ifs. Because not only did they want Pelosi and Pence, they were willing to take any hostage who was a member.”

The congresswoman chairing a hearing of the Emergency Taskforce on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health on June 7, 2019. From left are Stacey Plaskett (D-Virgin Islands at-large), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC at-large), Watson Coleman, and Ilhan Omar (D-MN).

Watson Coleman believes that positive change can come only if those who break laws are brought to justice. “You don’t get rid of racism and anti-Semitism and other phobias against Muslims, LGBT, and the like, but you do control the negative behavior by enforcing the law,” she said. “I can’t ask to change your heart, but I can doggone sure change your behavior. I hope the heat is so high that they go so far underground, and while they do, we do everything we can to restore decency and respect and an appreciation for diversity. And we get people to jobs, and climate control. We have to communicate to people what we’re doing that responds to what they need. We haven’t always been good at it. We must come big and we must come bold. Biden is certainly leaning in that way, and I look forward to working with him legislatively. But people need to know we care that you have access to health care, decent jobs, decent wages, houses, and making sure your children get educated without the burden of a whole bunch of debt.”

While the impeachment vote didn’t go the way Watson Coleman had hoped, she continues to work toward change on numerous levels.

“The whole law enforcement issue as captured in what happened to George Floyd, the Voting Rights Act, looking at systemic racism, at poverty — I think so much damage has been done to our systems and our weakest of communities over the last four years,” she said. “So we have to be very versatile in how we conduct our business. There are so many concerns that need to be addressed, and we have to deal with them simultaneously, not in a linear way. There is a lot to do.”