Redistricting tie-breaker Alan Rosenthal’s decision to support a legislative redistricting map drawn up by Democratic commission members can be summed up in two words: status quo.
Rosenthal’s decision yesterday makes it likely not only that Democrats will continue to hold their majorities in both the state Senate and the state Assembly in next November’s election, but also that 90 percent of incumbent legislators will be reelected with relatively little difficulty.
"I’m keeping 24!" said an elated Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), whose party holds a 24-16 majority.
Rosenthal, the Rutgers University political scientist who was chosen to serve as the Legislative Redistricting Commission’s 11th member, made clear at a public hearing shortly after accepting appointment as the neutral tie-breaker, that one of his top priorities was maintaining "continuity of representation -- a priority he listed ahead of increasing minority representation or creating more competitive districts.
That should have come as no surprise to any of the Democrats or Republicans who followed his work as the tie-breaking member of the 2002 Congressional Redistricting Commission, which practiced a politics of "mutual assured survival" that strengthened the reelection chances of Democratic and Republican incumbents alike.
But Republican commission members had to be asking themselves how they could possibly have put Rosenthal’s name on their list of acceptable choices for neutral tie-breaker after hearing him explain his reasoning for choosing the Democratic map over the final Republican proposal.
To the dismay of Republican leaders, as well as the Bayshore Tea Party activists who packed into a fourth floor Statehouse Annex hearing room for the formal vote yesterday afternoon, Rosenthal said he preferred the Democratic map because it was "more conservative, less disruptive" than the final GOP plan.
"It is a map, I believe, that gives the minority party a chance at winning control of the Legislature, even in what is essentially a Democratic state," Rosenthal said.
Rosenthal refused to take questions about his reasoning from Assemblyman Jay Webber, the Morris County Republican who chaired the five-member GOP commission caucus, or from reporters afterwards.
Rosenthal’s belief that New Jersey is "essentially a Democratic state" infuriated Webber, who noted that Chris Christie won the 2009 gubernatorial election, and also that more votes were cast statewide for GOP legislative candidates in 2009 and for Republican congressional candidates last year.
But if Rosenthal believes that New Jersey is a blue state and that a good map is "less disruptive" to the "continuity of representation" that he cherishes, how could he have done other than choose the Democratic map? -- even with Governor Christie breaking with precedent by sitting in on some of the GOP commission caucus sessions and meeting with Rosenthal.
While the Republican map would have required a dozen or more incumbents to face off in redrawn districts, the Democratic map only created two senatorial faceoffs.
As expected, the Democratic map shifted embattled Democratic Senator John Girgenti’s hometown of Hawthorne into the Bergen County-dominated 38th District, where he would face an uphill battle against fellow Democratic incumbent Bob Gordon. The map also put Republican Senators Sean Kean and Bob Singer into a newly configured safe Republican 30th District. Only the 21st District ended up with three incumbent Republican Assembly members, while three districts ended up with three Democratic incumbents, each on the map his party drew. And in the end, former Governor and Senate President Richard Codey, D-Essex, ended up in a more competitive -- but winnable -- district.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, the state Democratic Party chairman who headed the five-member Democratic commission caucus, insisted that Democrats won Rosenthal’s support because they listened closely to his suggestions and quickly adjusted their maps whenever he objected.
"We knew we had to line up to teacher’s expectations, and we did," Wisniewski said, insisting that Republicans were tone-deaf to Rosenthal’s warnings against putting too many incumbents into head-to-head battles or coming in repeatedly with a majority-minority district that linked Bayonne and Newark by jumping over a mile of Newark Bay and another mile or so of Newark Airport tarmac.
Wisniewski and other Democrats tried to insist that the new map created as many as seven competitive districts -- the 1st and 2nd in Cape May, Cumberland and Atlantic Counties, the little-changed 14th District in the Mercer and Middlesex suburbs, the Bergen County-dominated 38th, the 7th District running along the Delaware River in Burlington County, the new 27th District that is split between Essex County Democratic and Morris County Republican suburbs, and a new 11th District in Monmouth County that was created as a potential minority opportunity district at the behest of a coalition of minority groups that ultimately endorsed the Democratic map.
Political experts were skeptical about the competitiveness claims, however.
Monmouth University political scientist Patrick Murray, who had urged the commission to create more competitive districts, shook his head when he looked at the final map. "You have two competitive districts here, tops -- the 7th and 14th, "he declared. "That’s it."
"For Republicans to get control of the Senate, they would have to pick up five seats because it’s 24-16 Democrat now," said one Democratic political operative. "Short of a Republican landslide like 1991, I don’t see five seats anywhere on this map. I don’t see how Democrats could fall below 22. Democrats could just as easily gain a seat as lose one."
"The 38th District isn’t competitive, and any suggestion that Codey’s in trouble is [expletive],” a top Republican political strategist said angrily just before the commission vote.
A review of the districts listed by Wisniewski as competitive quickly shows that the Democratic map chosen by Rosenthal essentially preserves the status quo. Population shifts from the urban Northeast to Republican-leaning South Jersey and the GOP-dominated suburban-rural counties of northwestern New Jersey seemed to indicate that Democrats might be better off cutting their losses by sacrificing one of their 10 northeastern districts and creating a new Republican-dominated district somewhere like Ocean County.
But Democrats did better than that. They actually sacrificed nothing, as a look at the districts shows:
The Codey shift: Codey, the popular former governor, is indeed shifted partly into a Morris County district. He's not, however, being put head to head with Republican Senator Joseph Pennachio in a GOP-dominated Morris County district where he would have been an underdog for reelection. Instead, Codey and his 27th District Assembly running mates John McKeon and Mia Jasey are shifted, along with their West Essex hometowns of Roseland, South Orange and West Orange, into a district that runs through six Morris County Republican suburbs that have no incumbent legislators. Codey brings a $1 million-plus warchest into the new district. One Madison Republican said in an email last night, "I don’t think we could elect a Republican in this new district if we tried. Oh well. Nice to be sold down the river!"
Girgenti, Gordon and the 38th: Democrats avoided a nasty primary battle by shifting Hawthorne, the hometown of Senator John Girgenti, the Democrat who cast a key vote against the gay marriage bill, and gay rights activist Jeff Gardner, into the adjacent Bergen-dominated 38th District. Girgenti knows he can’t beat the incumbent in the 38th, Gordon, so he says he might move back to his native Paterson. But Hispanic Assemblywoman Nellie Pou already has announced that she plans to run for the Senate in the Hispanic-majority 35th District. That makes Girgenti the odd man out. Meanwhile, Gardner has endorsed Gordon and has now set his sights on a run for an open Assembly seat in the 38th. While the 38th District lost Democratic bastion Fort Lee in the new Democratic map, the addition of Democratic Bergenfield keeps the district still Democratic-leaning, especially with Gordon as an incumbent, Republicans concede.
Whelan and the 2nd: State Senator Jim Whelan, the former Democratic mayor of Atlantic City, is facing a challenge from Republican Assemblyman Vincent J. Polistina in November. Whelan picks up Democratic Somers Point, Buena Borough and Buena Vista Township in the new map and loses Republican Galloway Township to the solidly GOP 9th District. Overall, Whelan’s chances at reelection in a tough race have apparently improved.
The Van Drew Factor: Senator Jeff Van Drew, the Cape May County Democrat who has turned the once-Republican 1st District into an all-Democratic delegation, gives up Somers Point and the Buenas to help Whelan. His district moves west deeper into Cumberland County. The move really isn’t about Van Drew, a Democratic political strategist who was involved in the mapmaking process confided. "Van Drew’s solid. We wanted to add more of Cumberland to boost our two assemblymen in the district, who are both from Cumberland," the strategist said. "Matt Milam’s family has had a trucking business down there for years, and they have employees and customers living all over the county, and adding more of Cumberland helps Nelson Albano too." (Milam and Albano are the two incumbent Democratic assemblymen from Cumberland County in Van Drew's 1st District.) Van Drew’s personal popularity makes a Senate challenge an uphill battle for Republicans.
The Diane Allen Factor: The 7th is one of the two districts that Monmouth University Professor Patrick Murray characterizes as competitive, but Republicans already hold the Senate seat with Diane Allen, a popular former TV newswoman. She is as firmly ensconced in what should be a Democratic-leaning district as Van Drew is in Republican Cape May County. Redistricting leaves Democratic Assemblyman Herb Conaway in the district, shifts his running mate Jack Conners into the safe Democratic 6th District , and moves longtime Republican Assemblyman Joseph Malone’s hometown of Bordentown into the 7th. Malone should win this district if he runs, both parties agreed, and Conaway could be in for a fight if the GOP fields a strong candidate alongside him.
The 14th -- Greenstein again: The 14th is Murray’s other competitive district, but Democratic Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein just won the Senate in November in a high-profile race for the seat vacated by popular Republican Senator Bill Baroni. Christie appointed Baroni deputy executive director of the Port Authority in a move that left Republican legislative leaders scratching their heads. Baroni was popular with the public employee unions who are powerful in the 14th’s suburban Mercer-Middlesex corridor and would easily have held the seat for the GOP.
The 14th is little-changed in redistricting, losing South Brunswick and west Windsor and gaining East Windsor, Hightstown and Robbinsville. Greenstein and Democratic Assembly incumbents Wayne DeAngelo and Daniel Benson, both from Hamilton Township, the large Trenton suburb that dominates the district, will face tough challenges, but will be favored for reelection.
A Democratic Opportunity in Monmouth? The only new competitive district may actually be an opportunity for Democrats. One of the suggestions of a coalition of African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American minority groups was that the Democrats look into the possibility of creating a minority-opportunity district in Monmouth County.
The Democratic map totally revamped the 11th, 12th and 30th districts in Republican-dominated Monmouth, Ocean and Burlington counties to create a new 11th District with a 15.6 percent African-American, 15.3 percent Hispanic and 4.1 percent Asian population. To do so, the new district incorporates the Democratic cities of Long Branch and Asbury Park, Neptune Township and Neptune City, and the towns of Red Bank and Freehold. While the district has three Republican incumbents -- all women -- it is largely a new district for Republican Senator Jennifer Beck, currently represents very little of the district, and her fellow assemblywomen, Caroline Casagrande and Mary Pat Angelini, are both from Republican suburbs.
"This actually is a competitive district if the Democrats can field the right slate of candidates, with racial and geographic diversity," said a Democratic analyst who has worked in Monmouth County campaigns. "Jen Beck is an incumbent, but she’s new to most of the voters in the district." While Colts Neck and Freehold Township are GOP strongholds, most of the other suburbs in the district are usually closely contested, the analyst noted. The district has a strong gay community in both Asbury Park and Ocean Grove, which could also help Democrats.
Creating the new 11th District wreaked havoc with the Republican 12th and 30th districts. Senator Sean Kean and Assemblyman David Rible, who currently represent the 11th, are both from Republican Wall Township, which has been shifted into an overwhelmingly Republican 30th District that already has a Republican incumbent senator in Robert Singer of Lakewood That sets up a head-to-head battle for survival between Singer and Kean. The virtually new 12th District, which has no incumbent GOP senator, now slices down the middle of the state from Old Bridge in Middlesex County through western Monmouth into northern Burlington and Ocean counties.
The Democratic map puts Republican Assemblyman Jon Bramnick and Assemblywomen Denise Coyle and Nancy Munoz together in the 21st District, which is represented by Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean. Bramnick, a rising GOP star, won’t be affected; either Coyle or Munoz will lose her seat. Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) found his hometown of Princeton redistricted out of his 15th District and said he would move to Trenton to stay in the 15th. However, Gusciora will undoubtedly face a primary challenge from Lambertville Mayor David Delvecchio.
Webber and Republican leaders complained that the new map approved by Rosenthal discriminates against South Jersey voters because 12 of 14 districts in the nine counties from Monmouth and Burlington south have populations higher than the statewide average, while 18 of the 26 districts in the 12 counties running north from Mercer and Middlesex counties have populations lower than the average. While the population deviation is generally only plus-or-minus 1 percent to 2 percent, Webber noted that it is South Jersey’s population that has been growing most rapidly, and is expected to continue to do so.
The GOP assemblyman suggested that this discrimination by region violated the "one person, one vote" standard, even though federal case law has allowed a population deviation up to 10 percent overall and the level of population deviation in the Democratic map approved by Rosenthal is in the 5 percent range.
Webber said the GOP would discuss whether constitutional grounds existed to challenge the Democratic map. In addition to the issue of population disparity, he noted that a question exists whether the 7th District in Burlington County satisfies contiguity requirements. It is admittedly a narrow issue, considering the question focuses on whether Newbold Island, an uninhabited island between Bordentown Township and Florence Township, is partly owned by Mansfield Township, which is in the neighboring 8th District and would thus improperly bisect the 7th.
Most successful redistricting challenges, however, usually are based on issues of whether maps legally satisfy federal requirements for the creation of majority-minority districts.
Martin Perez of the Latino Leadership Alliance, which worked as closely with the GOP on redistricting as it has on school choice issues, fired off a complaining email to Rosenthal yesterday after the map was unveiled and would be the most likely minority complainant. But the fact that the NAACP and a broad coalition of African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American groups endorsed the Democratic map would undercut any legal challenge on that issue. Furthermore, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in a North Carolina case two years ago made majority-minority district challenges more difficult.
Nevertheless, few redistricting processes take effect without at least one legal challenge, and New Jersey is not likely to be one of the exceptions.
"We’ll look at our options and decide pretty quickly," Webber said.