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Opinion: Death and Redistricting

Mortality and imaginative re-mappings make for very interesting elections.

If I can rephrase a famous line, nothing is more certain than death and redistricting to create interesting elections. In 2012 in New Jersey, we are looking at three races set up by the deaths of John Adler and Donald Payne and the redistricting of Bill Pascrell's old 8th district into Steve Rothman's old 9th. There is also one new challenge of a Congressman by a state legislator worth mentioning

Pascrell and Rothman

This is surely a fight that the Democratic Party didn't want and doesn't need, but it's unfolding and it's interesting. Rothman got the jump on Pascrell in late December when he decided to challenge his friend in the new 9th rather than take on conservative Republican Scott Garrett in the new 5th. Rothman's announcement was accompanied by a slew of endorsements from municipal and legislative figures in Bergen and Hudson Counties. Pascrell had to claw his way back with endorsements from wherever he could find them, mostly in Passaic County.

And that's really the prism for viewing this race: Bergen vs. Passaic. Some 54 percent of the district is in Bergen County, 43 percent in Passaic, and about 3 percent in Hudson. By that reckoning, Rothman has a slight advantage, with lifelong ties to Bergen County. Pascrell has lifelong ties to Passaic County.

What else distinguishes them? Rothman told the Bergen Record editorial board and my colleague Mike Schneider of "NJ Today" recently that he is the more progressive of the two. He said Pascrell had voted in favor of a Mexican border fence, in favor of restrictions on a woman's right to choose, had voted for the bank bailout ("TARP," which Rothman opposed), and had voted to remove the public option from the Obama healthcare reform act. The Pascrell camp disputed that last point, but nobody rushed in to declare the basic premise false. Rothman may be slightly more to the left than Pascrell, whose background as mayor of Paterson makes him a little more of a tough-guy centrist. Rothman was the first white politician in New Jersey to endorse Barack Obama for President back in 2008, another sign of true-blue liberalism.

What distinguishes them more than their voting records is their styles. Pascrell is like a strong brew of coffee. He can also be blustery, forceful, and long-winded. In my 30 years of covering the state legislature, the people I remember as giving the longest speeches on the floor were Bill Pascrell and the long-departed Mike Adubato, brother of Steve senior. Stentorian, I think, is the word for the kind of passionate harangues that often emanated from their lips. (Sometimes Ron Rice used to threaten to break into this circle.) Pascrell is famously a "fighter," according to those close to him, and I'm not sure I'd want to be on his wrong side.

Rothman is much more a mensch, a word he uses and I wouldn't be surprised to learn has used to describe Pascrell. Less intimidating, more self-deprecating, though every bit as politically keen. If Pascrell comes off as a kind of old-school gritty-city mayor, Rothman comes off as the unthreatening good kid who keeps winning every student government election. If Pascrell is coffee, Rothman is herbal tea.

Both have been serious congressmen. Both have plenty to recommend them in the June primary, where one of them will get completely derailed. Pascrell keeps saying that Rothman has let the Democratic party down by not taking on Garrett. Rothman's camp says it's time to move on from that argument.

A test of their relative strength took place at the Bergen County Democratic Convention a few weeks ago, which Rothman won 329 to 72. You'd think that was good for Rothman until you get the Pascrell spin, which is that 72 is three times more than the number of votes Pascrell thought he would get in Rothman's home county and that 200 county committee members were no-shows, meaning there's a lot of apathy among Bergen Democrats.

A wild card in the race is the Jewish vote. Rothman is Jewish, and some orthodox voices have said he is also the more pro-Israel. I imagine Pascrell is a strong Israel supporter in his own right.

Winning the Bergen convention means Rothman will have "the line" -- that is to say, the county-party-backed position on the ballot -- in Bergen. He will also have it in the two Hudson County towns in the district, Kearny and Secaucus. Pascrell got the line in Passaic, where county Democratic chairman John Currie pretty much gets to make that call himself. He's an old ally of Pascrell's. The Rothman camp didn't even contest the award.

So, this one could go either way. You have to give the slight edge to Rothman owing to geography. But anyone who knows Bill Pascrell knows that that "fighter" tag is not to be written off as meaningless. The Bergen Record is sponsoring two debates, one in Bergen, one in Passaic, and those could produce a race-altering line or moment. The Record's editorial endorsement will also be significant.

There's a scenario that's as intriguing as the race itself: Pascrell wins the primary, and Rothman decides to stay in Fair Lawn, cancel his move to Englewood, and take on Garrett. The Bergen County Democratic party makes this happen by substituting whoever wins the June 5th primary for the 5th district seat and replacing that person with Rothman. Rothman gets to carry on, be a hero for his party, and maybe even win in a strong Obama election.

"Steve has made it clear. He'll run in the 9th or retire," says Paul Swibinski, Rothman's consultant, who asked me to make it as clear as possible that this means: "No Way."

Payne Jr., Gill, Rice "Jr.," and Smith

The race to fill the late Donald Payne's Congressional seat is a hot one. It's all about the June primary. Payne's son, Donald Jr., is the sentimental favorite. State Senator Nia Gill is the likeliest to take it away from him.

Payne Jr. looks the strongest because good will towards his father's memory seems to be the primary political influence in the district. Sheila Oliver, the Assembly Speaker, decided not to run "out of respect for Don Payne Sr.," we were told. Her political patron Joe DiVincenzo, the Essex County Executive, didn't want her to run; Essex likes having one of the legislative leadership posts.

New Jersey hasn't had a woman Congressman since Marge Roukema, and so there was a lot of enthusiasm among women around the idea of an Oliver candidacy, which can now transfer to Nia Gill. Like Oliver she is what someone called an "iconic black woman" in the state. And she's a maverick from the vantage point of the Essex County Democratic organization. She ran against the party for Senate in 2003 and beat its candidate, Leroy Jones. She challenged Dick Codey for Senate President in 2008 and put a scare into Codey allies on the day of the legislative reorganization.

The new 10th district is 60 percent Essex, 25 percent Union, and 15 percent Hudson. Gill is tight with Sen. Ray Lesniak of Union, who is tight with Sen. Sandra Cunningham of Hudson, so she has strength in those two counties. She'll likely make Emily's List in Washington and get its significant financial help. Some say she is alienated from the Essex party, although she is the attorney for the Essex County Improvement Authority. Joe D. was "very much a Don Payne guy," we're told, so he will go for Don Payne Jr.

Payne Jr. is the Newark Council president and an Essex County freeholder. He has four school-age children, which was believed to be holding him back until friends of his late father's got in his ear and told him he had a legacy to protect—or so it's said. Rice Jr. is a Newark councilman who had planned to challenge Payne Sr., then withdrew the challenge when the Congressman announced he had colon cancer, and now is back in the race. Wayne Smith is the longtime mayor of Irvington and a respected player on the state scene. Rice Jr., by the way, is not really a junior. He is Ronald L. Rice; his father the senator is Ronald C. Rice.

If the two juniors plus Smith divide up Payne Sr.'s old Essex base, Gill could win.

Jon Runyan and Shelley Adler

The 3rd congressional district was for decades a Republican stronghold until John Adler wrested it away in the 2008 election. Then he lost it in 2010 to former NFL lineman Jon Runyan. And then a few months later, he died at 51 of a heart problem.

Runyan has put his stamp on the district, but now Shelley Adler, the late congressman's widow, aims to take it back for the Democrats. She is a former Cherry Hill councilwoman who went to the University of Chicago and, like John Adler, Harvard Law School. A friend calls her "focused and tenacious." She played a behind-the-scenes role in her husband's career, and as gregarious as John Adler was, the friend says Shelley likes to mingle with people more and will be a good campaigner. The gatherings at her kick-off events in mid-March were small, but she'll have $250,000 in the bank by April 1, we're told.

Runyan is said to be close to House Speaker John Boehner and Budget Chairman Paul Ryan. They like his celebrity status, someone said. He will be identified with their issues -- fiscal conservatism, anti-Obama-ism -- which will help in some parts of the district and hurt in others. He has been a champion of Joint Base McGuire Dix, as was the longtime Republican congressman here Jim Saxton. He has advanced the interests of recreational fishermen, says his camp. The other side paints him as a laconic figure, not terribly happy in the Congress, not terribly active in the district. Runyan's camp says hogwash. "He's done a very nice job of staying in his zone as a freshman," one said.

The big question here is the district. Shelley Adler doesn't live in it. She lives in Cherry Hill, a big Democratic town that was cut out by the Republicans on the Redistricting Commission as a big favor to their big lineman. She says she will move into the district if she wins. Brick Township was added to the 3rd, and that's a big Republican town. Democrats note that their side took control of local government in Brick in 2011, but Republicans say that was all about a local issue. Chris Christie, they say, got 67 percent of the vote in Brick in 2009, McCain 58 percent in 2008, George W. Bush 61 percent in 2004. In Cherry Hill, by contrast, Barack Obama got 65 percent in 2008, so Republicans in the 3rd are happy it went to Rob Andrews.

The Rothenberg Political Report moved the race from "Republican Favored" to "Lean Republican" after Shelley Adler got in. She has a powerful story to tell. An Obama wave would help her. But Runyan has made friends with big-time Republicans both in Washington and New Jersey, and it would be an upset if he lost.

Lance and Chivulka

The new 7th district touches parts of six counties: Somerset, Hunterdon, Union, Morris, Warren, and the one town of Millburn in Essex.

It's pretty Republican-leaning, the more so after redistricting, and Leonard Lance is a well-regarded figure throughout the district and the state. So it was a bit of a surprise in late March to learn that Democratic Assemblyman Upendra Chivikula will challenge Lance in the fall. He, too, is well-regarded and has a story to tell: the first Asian-American elected to the legislature, arriving in the U.S. at 24, working his way up the Democratic Party ladder to the chairmanship of the Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee.

Chivikula has made his mark as an avatar of clean energy, pushing the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, solar energy credits, and offshore wind. A problem is that he lives in Franklin Township, Somerset County, which is outside the district. And neither is Edison in the district, the home of so many South Asians who would otherwise probably love to vote for one of their own. In fact, none of the towns Chivikula currently represents in the 17th legislative district lie in the 7th congressional district. It's not a great fit.

Chivikula was urged to run by Somerset County Democratic chair Peg Schaeffer. He was in China at a Kean University event, and upon his return decided to do it. He doesn't have to give up his Assembly seat to make the run and can go safely back to it if he loses.

Which is exactly what the Lance camp says will happen. What was a 2.9 percent district in Republican-speak --- that is, a district whose Republican registration is 2.9 percent above the national average -- has become a 5 percen Republican district, they say. And now that southern Warren County is back in the 7th, it brings back some towns that Lance represented for many years in the state legislature.

Lance's three-plus years in Congress have been all about "bringing fiscal sanity back to Washington," as his camp puts it. Lance "welcomes Chivikula into the race," they say and will highlight the assemblyman's "liberal record as part of the Democratic leadership in Trenton."

As for Chikula, he says he'll move into the district if he wins and already has connections in Somerset, Union and Hunterdon. "It's a brand-new district," he says. "It's a presidential year. I've proved myself as an innovator and job creator. And Washington is gridlocked"

Lance faces a primary challenge from David Larson, a Tea Party member who lost decisively to Lance two years ago. Chivikula says that's going to pull Lance to the right. "The district is Republican-leaning," Chivikula concedes, "but there are a lot of independent thinkers there." The Lance camp calls Chivikula "qualified" and "formidable" but doesn't sound worried.

Michael Aron is chief political correspondent of NJTV and vice president for news and public affairs at the Foundation for New Jersey Public Broadcasting.

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