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In 2011 Redistricting, Population Change Will Drive GOP Gains

With hotly contested legislative races statewide, Democratic and Republican strategies are all over the map.

New Jersey’s legislative redistricting process officially kicks off in Trenton this morning, as the state commission in charge of reapportioning legislative districts after the 2010 U.S. Census meets for the first time. Although the process is expected to take months and it is unclear how district lines -- or districts themselves -- will be moved, the result is likely to be Republicans gaining a least one Senate and two Assembly seats in the next state legislature and one of New Jersey’s 13 incumbent members of Congress is guaranteed to lose his job.

The five Democratic and five Republican members of the New Jersey Legislative Redistricting Commission will meet today to discuss rules and a public hearing schedule. But the real action won’t begin until Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner appoints an 11th member, expected to be a neutral tie-breaker. Rabner is reviewing a list of prospective candidates submitted by the two commission caucuses.

New Jersey is one of 15 states that uses bipartisan or non-partisan commissions to draw new legislative maps following each decennial Census. However, it is the only one facing a tight deadline. Because its legislative elections are held in odd-numbered years. New Jersey has to finish legislative redistricting by early April to give candidates time to file petitions to run in June party primaries in the new districts.

Redistricting requires muncipal data, which the U.S.Census Bureau is not expected to make available until late February. The Census Bureau has already provided state population data, which showed, as expected, that New Jersey will lose one of its 13 congressional seats. Its population did not increase sufficiently to keep up with population growth in the country's south, southwest and west. Because congressional elections are not scheduled until 2012, the New Jersey Congressional Redistricting Commission will not be appointed until June and will have up to nine months to hold public hearings and draw up a new map.

There is, as noted, no such luxury when it comes to the legislative elections. It is possible, however, to get an early glimpse of what the legislative map may look like. To do so, NJ Spotlight compared the 2000 U.S. Census population projections in each county with the 2009 population projections published by the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Our analysis is not conclusive, but it does reveal significant trends.

Redrawing the Map

One of the most important of these is that the fastest-growing parts of the state are in the south and northwest counties that vote Republican. This shift in population will mean one of two things: Democratic districts can be expanded west and south, resulting in more competitive districts at the edges of what were once Demcoratic strongholds. Or the commission can decide to elminate a northeastern (and presumably Democratic) district entirely and create a new one in the west or south to take its place. With a lot on the line this year for both parties, it will be interesting to see what strategies the commission’s Republican and Democratic caucuses decide to pursue: Do Republicans push to create more competitive districts throughout the state, assuming that the political tide is with them? Do Democrats try to play it safe by sacrificing one northeast district to strengthen others? And what approach will the neutral tie-breaker take?

The upcoming battle for control of the New Jersey legislature is expected to be particularly close and hard-fought. Republican Governor Christie’s national celebrity, coupled with the fact that only New Jersey, Virginia, Louisiana and Kentucky hold off-year elections, virtually guarantees that national parties, political action committees (PACs) and donors will pour millions into these legislative elections.

Democrats enjoyed an overwhelming campaign funding advantage from the 1999 to the 2009 legislative elections. The key was former Governor Jon Corzine’s fund-raising prowess and willingness to pour tens of millions of dollars of his own fortune into not only his own races, but also into county Democratic political coffers and key races.

With Corzine -- and his millions -- gone, Christie and Republican legislative leaders are hoping to win the four Senate and eight Assembly seats needed to take total control of state government. Christie put his personal stamp on redistricting by making sure that William Palatucci, his top strategist, was named to the panel, which most experts viewed as evidence that the GOP redistricting effort will be run out of the governor’s office.

The GOP is emboldened by its performance in the 2010 elections, particularly in Bergen County, which elected a Republican county executive and all GOP freeholders, taking control from the Democrats. Also notable, was Rep. Jon Runyan’s ouster of Democrat Jon Adler in the 3rd District, which sprawls across the Ocean, Burlington and Camden county suburbs. This victory was part of a national landslide in which the GOP regained control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Outmaneuvering the GOP

Ten years ago, Democrats won the redistricting battle by outmaneuvering the GOP. They persuaded Larry Bartels, the tie-breaker appointed by former Chief Justice Deborah Poritz, a Republican, to approve their plan to shift thousands of minority voters from Democratic-controlled districts into two neighboring suburban districts that included parts of Essex, Union and Passaic counties. Democrats asserted that their new strategy would result in the election of more minorities to the legislature, and they were right. Democratic slates including African-American candidates swept the new “minority opportunity districts,” capturing two Senate and four Assembly seats in the 22nd and 34th districts that ended ten years of Republican legislative control. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, a member of the redistricting commission, represents the 34th District today.

While that argument was decisive in 2001, this time population shifts are more likely to win the day, no matter how innovative Democratic commission members are.

The accompanying maps and charts make use of 2009 state data and 2000 federal data. As indicated, they are not conclusive. Given that caveat, however, they show the Democratic counties of Essex and Hudson have actually lost population, and Union and Passaic have barely grown at all. Meanwhile, Republican strongholds like Ocean, Monmouth and Burlington in South Jersey and Morris, Somerset and northwest New Jersey are the fastest-growing regions of the state.

Based on an analysis of population projections, when the new legislative map is drawn we can expect to see a configuration more favorable to Republicans. We could very well see one Democratic district in the urban northeast replaced by a solidly GOP district, most likely somewhere in the middle of South Jersey. That is what happened in 1991 when Republican commission members persuaded the neutral tie-breaker to take the Democratic 30th District in Essex and plop it in the middle of Burlington and Ocean counties where it immediately became a Republican bastion for Senator Bob Singer of Lakewood and Assemblyman Joseph Malone of Bordentown, each first elected in 1993.

By the Numbers

While the Legislative Redistricting Commission cannot produce a map without final municipal population numbers from the U.S. Census, both parties have been developing strategies for months based upon population projections.

Similarly, to assist us in assessing the most likely outcomes of the legislative and congressional redistricting process, we compared the 2000 U.S. Census population projections in each county with the 2009 population projections published by the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development. We calculated that the likely size of legislative districts based on those 2009 numbers would grow 3.49 percent from an average of 210,359 residents in the 2000 Census to an average of 217,693. The final numbers from the 2010 Census are likely to be only slightly higher, and the population trends will probably continue, so these estimates are statistically valid for our use. We then divided the state into six political regions for purpose of analysis

Bergen County

Bergen County, grew by 11,132 residents, or just 1.26 percent, which is enough to keep its three Democratic and one Republican district -- the 36th, 37th, 38th and 39th -- relatively intact. Senator Paul Sarlo, (D-Bergen) will keep an eye on his district’s makeup from his seat on the redistricting commission.

The Urban Northeast

The Urban Northeast is the only region of the state that actually lost population. It shed 17,294 residents, or 0.72 percent of its population, when it would have needed a gain of 84,255 residents just to stay even. Currently, those counties make up 12 legislative districts: the 20th, 21st, and 22nd in Union; the 31st, 32nd and 33rd in Hudson; the 27th, 28th, 29th and 34th in Essex; and the Passaic-dominated 35th and 40th. The numbers, however, justify just under 11 districts.

Court decisions requiring the maintenance of majority-minority districts where possible will protect the 27th, 28th and 29th in Essex and Hudson’s three districts. Most likely, some of the minority precincts that were moved out in 2001 will need to be moved back into those districts to make the population numbers work.

The only two Republican districts, the 22nd, which Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean Jr. represents, and the 40th, whose Senator Kevin O’Toole sits on the commission, have both gained population. That leaves the 20th, 22nd, 34th and 35th. These run in a line through Passaic, Essex and Union -- working-class suburbs and small towns -- most vulnerable to combination. Two of these districts are politically more powerful. The 34th is represented by Assembly Speaker Oliver, who sits on the redistricting commission, as well as by Senator Nia Gill, who took the lead in arguing for the creation of the 34th as a majority-minority district, and Assemblyman Thomas Giblin, an influential union leader and former state Democratic chairman. The 20th includes Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Cryan, who also is a member of the commission, as well as the formidable Senator Raymond Lesniak, a longtime Democratic power broker. That puts the smart money on Passaic’s 35th or Union’s 22nd as the most likely district to be eliminated if legislative redistricting follows the same course as in 1991, when the Democratic 30th district was moved from Essex County to Republican Ocean and Burlington.

Democrats fought against eliminating one of their districts during the 1991 legislative redistricting round, but a strategic argument could be made to sacrifice a district this time. Democrats currently hold what is essentially a four-district lead, with Republicans needing to gain four senators and eight Assembly members for a majority, or three senators and seven Assembly members for a tie. By retrenching, Democrats would most likely solidify their majorities in the other Urban Northeast districts they now hold. It would be a much riskier strategy for Democrats to try to hold all four districts by seeking to expand their boundaries west into suburbs that contain higher percentages of GOP and independent voters in a year in which Christie and Republican popularity ratings are higher than usual.

The Republican Northwest

The five Republican Northwest counties grew by a combined 69,883 voters, or 6.64 percent, led by Somerset County, which gained 29,379 residents for a growth rate of 9.88 percent that was the third-highest in the state. Morris, the largest county in the region, however, grew only 3.89 percent, just slightly above the statewide average. Most likely, the legislative map of the Republican Northwest won’t look much different, with five intact districts – the 16th, 23rd, 24th, 25th and 26th -- and more of its voters spilling west into adjacent districts like the 21st and 22nd as they currently do, making those districts more Republican, and south into the hotly contested Mercer-Middlesex 14th District.

The Route 1 Corridor

Like the Republican Northwest, the Democratic Route 1 Corridor grew solidly, in this case by 5.09 percent, led by Middlesex County, which gained 40,576 residents to pass Essex as the state’s second-largest county. Once again, however, the growth is not sufficient to add a legislative district to the region, which currently includes Middlesex’s 17th, 18th and 19th districts, Mercer’s 15th, part of the Monmouth County-dominated 13th, and the swing district 14th, which is split between the two counties and whose retention is a Democratic priority. Democratic Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein won the Senate seat formerly held by Republican Bill Baroni, who had moved on to become deputy director of the Port Authority, a victory that gave Democrats some breathing room in the upcoming Senate elections. If Democrats choose to try to defend all of their urban northeast districts rather than sacrificing one, they could try to shift some of their new Middlesex County residents north into Union County districts. Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the Democratic state chairman from Middlesex, sits on the legislative panel.

The Jersey Shore and the Delaware River South

Both politically and numerically, it makes sense to look at the Jersey Shore and the Delaware River South regions together because their combined growth of 185,763 residents practically equals a new legislative district in size. The region currently has thirteen districts and part of another, but its population total currently requires at least fourteen full districts and it could share a fifteenth district with some of Mercer’s and Middlesex’s growing suburbs.

The Jersey Shore was the fastest-growing section of the state, with a 7.05 percent growth rate and 104,491 additional residents, and its numbers are likely to grow the most when the final 2010 Census numbers come out. Ocean County, whose GOP chairman George Gilmore sits on the commission, added 62,762 residents, for a 12.28 percent growth rate that was the second-highest in the state, Monmouth County grew by more than 28,000 and Atlantic by over 19,000. The fastest-growing county in the state actually was Gloucester in the Delaware River South region, with a 35,247 resident gain that represented a 13.84 percent growth rate. Burlington jumped more than 22,000 and Cumberland added over 11,000.

The growth in these two regions means that districts will be more compact in size, giving Democrats, for example, the opportunity to try to give extra protection by taking away Republican towns from key legislators like Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who saw his home county of Gloucester elect two GOP freeholders last fall, or their 2nd District Democratic delegation in fast-growing Atlantic County. Republicans, meanwhile, have to decide whether they want to fight for more competitive swing districts in the region, whose surprising Democratic strength (five senators and 12 Assembly members in 13 legislative districts) is usually attributed to the leadership and fund-raising skills of Camden County-based Democratic power broker George Norcross.

If Democrats decide to give up an urban northeast district as part of a retrenchment strategy, it will most likely end up in South Jersey The question for both party’s strategists is whether they want to make the new district a Republican stronghold and allow the the South Jersey incumbents from both parties to consolidate their bases, or use the new district to try to create more competitive districts -- an approach that presumably would give the GOP a better chance to gain the seats they need to win back the legislature.

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