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Rothman Challenge to Pascrell Could Dash Minority Hopes

Bergen Democrat's decision to run in the primary could upset coalition's hopes to eventually elect a minority in the 9th District -- unless a minority runs now.

Thom Jackson, the president of the Garden State Bar Association, the state's leading organization of African-American lawyers, was ebullient two weeks ago after emerging from a meeting with New Jersey's Congressional Redistricting Commission.

"Both parties understand what we're looking for, and I'm confident we'll be pleased with the final map," Jackson said after he and Jerome Harris, chair of the state Black Issues Convention, and George Gore, political action chair of the New Jersey NAACP, met with the redistricting panel on December 21 to urge that provide an opportunity for the state to elect at least one more minority member of Congress before the end of the decade. (Clicking on any district on the interactive map will bring up the total population for that district.)

The group's goal was to make sure that the majority-minority cities of Paterson and Passaic and nearby communities with significant minority populations represented by Rep. William Pascrell (D-8), a former Paterson mayor, stayed together. Elected to Congress in 1996, Pascrell would turn 75 on January 25, 2012. "When Bill Pascrell retires, that seat will be occupied by a minority," Jackson asserted.

Now he's not so sure. In fact, Jackson suggested, it might make sense for a minority candidate to enter the race now.

That's because Pascrell is now facing a challenge from Rep. Steve Rothman, a 59-year-old Bergen County Democrat who announced he would move into Pascrell's district to run against him in the primary rather than take on Rep. Scott Garrett, the state's most conservative Republican congressman, in the newly configured 5th District

"Rothman would certainly make it more difficult if he wins because it's difficult to beat an incumbent," Jackson said yesterday. "Energizing minority voters for a primary if you have to take on a Rothman head-on and you cannot self-fund your campaign would be very difficult."

Jackson, a Morristown lawyer, suggested that the new political developments in the 9th District argued for a strong minority candidate to enter the primary and turn it into a three-way race.

"This might be the best opportunity we have," he said. "Maybe while those two powerhouses [Rothman and Pascrell] are going at it, the right minority candidate could get in there and win a three-way race."

Whether a grass-roots campaign by a minority candidate in a primary against Rothman, who already has $1.74 million in the bank, and Pascrell, with $1.43 million on hand, is a real question, however.

A Rothman-Pascrell matchup is not what Congressional Redistricting Commission Democrats, Republicans or independent tie-breaker John Farmer Jr. envisioned two weeks ago when they were developing their final plans for consolidating New Jersey's 13 U.S. House districts into 12.

Both the Democratic and Republican maps put Garrett's and Rothman's hometowns in a consolidated 5th District -- the Democrats in what they projected to be a 50-50 tossup race and the Republicans in a district that favored Garrett. Farmer chose the GOP map, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee promptly pledged to raise up to $2 million to give Rothman a shot against Garrett in what would admittedly be an uphill race.

Farmer said one of his reasons for choosing the GOP map was that it created minority opportunity districts where "minorities in coalition can constitute a majority" -- and the 9th District was the prime example.

Hispanics make up 31.2 percent of the population, African-Americans 9.7 percent and Asians 12.2 percent of the renamed and newly configured 9th District, whose white population dipped from 48.8 percent in Pascrell's old 8th District to 45.4 percent under the new map. The combined Hispanic/African-American 40.9 percent of the population potentially constitutes a majority in a Democratic primary, and victory in the primary would be tantamount to election in the solidly Democratic district.

Both of New Jersey's current minority members of Congress, Donald Payne of Newark and Albio Sires of Union City, were elected in their safe Democratic districts with strong support in both the primary and general elections from coalitions of Hispanic and African-American voters.

However, Rothman's decision to throw his $1.74 million warchest against Pascrell's $1.43 million in the 9th District Democratic primary, rather than taking on the equally well-funded Garrett in the general election, could make the district's majority-minority population a moot point.

What changed the political equation was the fact that while the Republican map kept Pascrell's new district majority-minority, it moved so much of Rothman's old district into the new one that the Bergen Democrat actually represents 54 percent of the new 9th today, compared to the 43 percent that Pascrell currently represents.

In announcing his decision to take on Pascrell rather than Garrett, Rothman announced a slew of political endorsements from Bergen and Hudson County political leaders, elected officials, and municipal chairs.

Pascrell, who has the support of Passaic County Democratic Chairman John Currie and the Democratic municipal chairs of all six Passaic towns in the district, yesterday added Passaic City's Hispanic mayor, Dr. Alex Blanco, to his list of endorsements.

However Paterson's African-American mayor, Jeff Jones, is currently sitting on the sidelines, promising that city officials will unite behind a candidate soon. Failure to secure Paterson support would most likely prove fatal to the hopes of Pascrell, a former mayor, to win the nomination.

It is Passaic County’s minority population centered in Paterson and Passaic City that makes the 9th a majority-minority district. Passaic’s 51.8 percent Hispanic population and 18.1 percent black population are much higher than minority numbers in the Bergen or Hudson portions of the district.

Meanwhile, Pascrell's Passaic coalition is expected to suffer its first significant defection today when Assemblyman Gary Schaer, the Passaic City council president and the only Orthodox Jew in the New Jersey Legislature, is expected to endorse Rothman, who is New Jersey's only Jewish congressman.

The new 9th District represented the best hope for New Jersey to elect a third minority to Congress this decade, even though Farmer said in announcing his vote for the Republican map that he believed there were two new minority opportunity districts, presumably referring to Democratic Rep. Rush Holt's 12th District with the addition of the city of Trenton or, less likely, to the 6th District represented by Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone.

Jackson's delegation wasn't worried about Rep. Donald Payne (D-10), an African-American congressman from Newark, and Albio Sires (D-13), a Hispanic from Union City, because the U.S. Voting Rights Act would clearly prevent any diminution of minority voting strength in the Payne and Sires districts.

Election of a third minority to Congress would bring New Jersey's minority representation up to 25 percent of the delegation -- still well below the 37 percent of the state's population that is African-American, Hispanic, or Asian, but better than the last decade, when the two seats held by Payne and Sires represented just 15 percent of the state's 13-member delegation.

Both of the final Democratic and Republican proposals left Pascrell as the incumbent in a majority-minority district, and the GOP map that independent tie-breaker John Farmer Jr. selected pushed the hometown of Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9) into a reconfigured 5th District represented by Republican Scott Garrett, the state's most conservative congressman.

Ironically, the most interesting potential wildcard bid by a minority candidate that has come up is in Garrett's Republican-leaning 5th District, where state and national Democratic leaders originally expected Rothman to run.

Former New York Giants linebacker Harry Carson, an African-American, confirmed in press reports that he was considering a potential run against Garrett, and Carson said he could afford to finance much of his own campaign -- although presumably the $1 million to $2 million fundraising pledge from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee would be on the table for a candidate like Carson with high name recognition.

Other names that have been mentioned as potential challengers to Garrett include state Senator Bob Gordon (D-38th), fresh off a victory in November over Bergen County GOP Freeholder Director John Driscoll in the most hotly contested state legislative race; Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D-38), who was one of Driscoll's running mates; and Passaic County Freeholder Terry Duffy.

Carson would be an interesting candidate who would be looking to repeat the success of Philadelphia Eagles tackle Jon Runyon, who won a contested Republican primary to run for the 3rd District U.S. House seat in 2010 and went on to defeat incumbent Democratic Rep. John Adler.

Runyon was one of the biggest winners in Farmer's decision to select the Republican map over the Democratic plan because the GOP map shifted Democratic Cherry Hill into Rep. Rob Andrews' already staunchly Democratic 1st District and replaced it with Republican stronghold Brick Township. The Brick-Cherry Hill swap put the damper on Democratic hopes to mount a serious challenge in the 3rd District next year.

Ultimately, the Republican-drawn map chosen by Farmer -- like the Democratic-sponsored map that independent tie-breaker Alan Rosenthal chose in the legislative redistricting process -- is regarded by experts like Monmouth University Professor Patrick Murray as likely to reelect six Republican incumbents and six Democratic incumbents. It will most likely be up to primary voters, though, to decide if the name of the sixth Democratic incumbent is Rothman or Pascrell.

Mark J. Magyar, a frequent contributor to New Jersey Spotlight, co-authored Redistricting and the Politics of Reform with Donald Scarinci, who served as a Democratic counsel to the New Jersey Legislative and Congressional Redistricting Commissions in 2001. Magyar teaches labor studies at Rutgers University. A former Statehouse correspondent, senior policy adviser in the Whitman administration and public policy center director, he served as policy director for the independent Daggett for Governor campaign in 2009.

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