Redistricting: The Inside Game

Mark J. Magyar | March 28, 2011 | More Issues
What happens behind closed doors when the power brokers decide who to reward and who to punish? That’s what worries supporters of popular 12-time Democratic Congressman Frank Pallone, whose political ambitions make him a threat to both parties

U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-Middlesex, Monmouth, Somerset and Union)
Publicly, the redistricting process in New Jersey is a state-level battle between two political parties vying to win approval from a neutral tie-breaker for a map that will best position them to win control of the legislature or a majority of congressional seats over the next decade. It is a battle conducted against a backdrop of public clamor to increase minority representation and create more competitive districts, and the rules change from decade to decade as the U.S. Supreme Court changes its partisan makeup and its mind on what the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act require.

But there’s an inside game too, a closed-door contest of Machiavellian calculation where New Jersey’s power players and political bosses decide who to reward and who to punish. It is a game of ever-shifting alliances, where party lines blur and naked political interest comes into sharp focus, where “What’s in it for me?” trumps “What’s best for the party?”

Something to Worry About

It’s the inside game that worries allies of former Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex), the popular former governor who is on the outs with party bosses, and backers of Democratic Congressman Frank Pallone, who has never been a favorite of the party’s power brokers either.

Anxious Codey supporters turned out in droves for a New Jersey Legislative Redistricting Commission hearing in Newark in February. South Jersey power broker George Norcross and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo had backed Norcross protege Stephen Sweeney in ousting Codey as Senate President and elevating unknown Essex Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver to Assembly Speaker. Codey’s allies feared that Sweeney and his backers — with tacit support from the GOP — would finish the job by shifting the popular Codey’s hometown of Roseland from the heavily Democratic 27th District into an overwhelmingly Republican Morris County-dominated district he would have a hard time winning.

Codey’s chances for survival improved with the public declaration by neutral tie-breaker Alan Rosenthal, a Rutgers University political scientist, that he would put a premium on “continuity of representation,” a philosophy that protects incumbents because it is based on giving as many voters as possible the opportunity to continue voting for those who currently represent them.

That same inside game endangers Senator John Girgenti(D-Passaic), whose 35th District is dominated by Paterson. Shifting Girgenti’s small hometown of Hawthorne into an adjacent Democratic district would open a Senate seat for a minority, Assemblywoman Nellie Pou, while averting an ugly primary battle with New Jersey’s gay community. Girgenti‘s vote helped sink the gay marriage bill in the waning days of the Democratic Corzine administration, and liberal activist Jeff Gardner has already taken over the Democratic organization in Girgenti’s hometown and announced plans to challenge him in the June primary.

“Codey has a big warchest and he could surprise people by surviving even in a much less favorable district,” said one veteran Democrat who asked not to be identified. “But Girgenti might not make it even if he was left in the same district, and everybody knows it. You get another minority senator, and there’s really no incentive not to move him.”

While public attention is focused on the legislative district map that must be approved within the next two weeks to give candidates the opportunity to file petitions by April 11 for the June 7 party primaries, New Jersey’s seven Democratic and six Republican congressmen and their political advisers have been meeting for months in anticipation of what promises to be the ultimate inside game.

Confirmed by the Census

Census figures released in December confirmed what political analysts have assumed for years — that New Jersey’s relatively slow population growth compared with the rest of the nation would cost the state one of its House seats. And while congressional redistricting maps are usually drawn to protect the seniority that determines House committee and subcommittee chairmanships, political calculations combined with the reality of population shifts may lead in another direction.

While congressional redistricting is still months away, four Democratic political insiders aligned with different congressmen and political factions across the state confirmed that there has been considerable discussion at the highest levels about targeting the Democratic congressman with the most seniority, Congressman Frank Pallone, whose 6th District includes the heart of Democratic Middlesex County, cuts down from the Shore into western Monmouth and snakes along the Shore to his hometown of Long Branch.

“We’ve heard it, and we know it’s out there, and we know why,” said a Pallone confidante. “We’re not going to talk about it publicly. But Frank’s strong, he has a good warchest, and he won’t go quietly. And President Obama and the White House wouldn’t be happy about it either. We do have to recognize that in a scenario like this, everybody is going to be out for himself.”

Pallone isn’t the only one on the hot seat. Whatever happens to Pallone, population shifts make it likely that at least one Democratic congressman, Rep. William Pascrell, also could find himself pitted against a Republican incumbent, most likely either Rep. Scott Garrett or Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, in a somewhat competitive district.

But it is the Pallone scenario that is a perfect illustration of the inside game that is cloaked in secrecy until suddenly a Sweeney and an Oliver emerge as the legislature’s new leaders and people start asking why.

Four Democratic insiders, all of whom asked not to be identified, laid out virtually identical reasons for the “perfect storm” of political calculation, as one put it, that is threatening Pallone’s future:

  • First, Pallone would be the leading candidate to replace U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, (D-NJ), if he decides not to run in 2014. Other Democratic congressmen who might also want to run — such as Rob Andrews, Steven Rothman and Bill Pascrell — as well as the power brokers who support them, would benefit if Pallone lost his congressional base. So would potential GOP U.S. Senate hopefuls like state Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean, who might like a second shot at the Senate seat he sought unsuccsessfully in 2008.
  • Second, Pallone would be a leading candidate for governor in 2013 if he decided that Lautenberg was not going to give up his seat and he wanted to take a free shot at the governorship that would not require him to give up his House seat. Ironically, Republican Governor Chris Christie and Sweeney, who is currently considered the Democrat frontrunner to face Christie in 2013, would have a common interest in weakening Pallone, as would other Democratic congressmen or state leaders considering a gubernatorial run, such as Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex).
  • Third, Christie has not forgiven Pallone for seeking hearings in 2008 and again during his campaign for governor in 2009 on Christie’s appointments of Republican-connected lawyers to lucrative monitoring contracts while U.S. Attorney. Pallone was particularly pointed in his attacks on Christie for appointing the former U.S. Attorney in New York who filed only civil charges against Todd Christie, the governor’s brother and a leading fundraiser, in an insider trading case in which 15 others were criminally charged, although none were convicted.
  • Fourth, Middlesex County Democratic leaders would like to have one of their own represent the predominantly Middlesex 6th District. While Buono wants to run for governor, there are no shortage of potential candidates for Congress, including Senator Joseph Vitale, Assemblyman John Wisniewski and Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula, who has started a federal political action committee. Reclaiming the seat for Middlesex would be a lot easier if the redistricting commission incorporated Pallone’s hometown of Long Branch and other Monmouth towns into the 4th District. This would be easy to do given the need for the state’s four southern congressional districts (the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th) to shift north to pick up an additional 160,000 voters during the redistricting process.
  • “Let’s face it, there are very few opportunities for people to move up, and Pallone is in the way of a lot of people,” said one North Jersey political insider. “[U.S. Senator Robert] Menendez isn’t going anywhere, you have the governor’s race and eventually you have Lautenberg’s seat, and a lot of people who believe it’s their turn. And Middlesex is the second-biggest county in the state and a big Democratic county, and it hasn’t had a congressman for 20 years. A lot of people aren’t happy.”

    Political observers, both close to Pallone and to others, did not discount the possibility that Pallone could simply move to Middlesex County and win a newly configured 6th District seat that presumably would incorporate some of the Democratic Union County towns that are currently part of Republican Congressman Leonard Lance’s 7th District.

    They noted that the 6th was supposed to be a Middlesex district when it was reconfigured in 1991, but Pallone defeated then-Democratic Assemblyman Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), in the June 1992 Democratic primary. “Pallone carried a lot of Middlesex County towns in that race, he’s been carrying them ever since, and they think he’s their congressman,” one Democrat said. “If he has to move, he’ll move.”

    Controlling Appointments to the Commission

    The scenario seems quite possible, given that Pallone’s potential rivals who control appointments to the Congressional Redistricting Commission.

    The 12-member panel includes two appointees each by the Democratic Senate President and Republican Senate Minority Leader, two each by the Democratic House Speaker and Republican House Minority Leader, and two each by the Democratic and Republican state party chairmen.

    On the Democratic side, party chairman John Wisniewski, a Middlesex County Democratic assemblyman, has said he plans to reject outgoing chairman Joe Cryan’s nomination of former Corzine strategist Maggie Moran, who is considered close to Pallone, for one of the seats, and intends to make both party chair appointments himself.

    Similarly, Sweeney, the Senate President, has said he plans to reject Codey’s 11th hour attempt to appoint at least one of his loyalists, Assemblyman Eldridge Hawkins (D-Essex) to one of the seats. Hawkins is threatening a lawsuit, but Sweeney wants both appointments.

    Oliver, the Democratic Assembly speaker, is a protege of DiVincenzo, the Essex Democratic chair who is one of a number of key Democratic leaders around the state, including Union City Mayor Brian Stack and Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac, who are publicly and privately close to Christie — yet another example of how party lines blur at the highest levels of New Jersey politics.

    The six Republican seats will be filled by Senate Minority Leader Kean, Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce, and state GOP chair Samuel Raia, a Christie loyalist who took office in January. In any case, Christie is not expected to take a back seat in congressional redistricting any more than he has in legislative redistricting, where the presence of longtime political adviser Bill Palatucci is a constant reminder of the governor’s interest in the outcome.

    “Frank’s going to have very few friends on that panel, and it’s not going to be like last time when Rosenthal just let the 13 incumbent congressmen work it out between them,” said one central Jersey Democratic insider. “This time, you have a powerful governor and some bigtime political players with strong vested interests in the outcome. And the 13 congressmen couldn’t work it out between them even if you asked them too. Nobody wants to give up his seat.”

    Cutting the legs out from under Pallone does not, in and of itself, solve the problem of combining 13 seats into 12, and population shifts provide limited options. Democratic Congressmen Donald Payne’s 10th District and Albio Sires’ 13th Districts are majority-minority districts that cannot be eliminated, but they will need to add more than 98,000 and 47,000 voters, respectively, to get to the right size, and most of those will have to come from Hudson, Essex and Bergen County towns in adjacent Democratic districts represented by Congressmen Pascrell and Rothman.

    That would most likely push Pascrell’s and Rothman’s districts, which each need to pick up more than 70,000 voters, into direct competition with Republican incumbents Scott Garrett, Rodney Frelinghuysen or Leonard Lance.

    “The most likely scenario, just based on geography, is still one that pits Pascrell against Garrett or Frelinghuysen,” one of the Democratic insiders noted.”

    “Lance is the junior member, but the geography doesn’t work as well unless they rotate all of the districts north of the Raritan River counterclockwise and end up pushing Lance up against Holt. It’s a lot more complicated, though, and half of North and Central Jersey ends up with a new congressman.”

    Normally, Frelinghuysen, as the second-ranking Republican in seniority in the New Jersey delegation and chair of the House Appropriations Committee’s Energy and Water Development Subcommittee — one of the House “cardinals,” as the chairs of the House Appropriations subcommittees are known — would be protected during redistricting.

    But Christie does not always see eye to eye with the Morris County Republican establishment, of which Frelinghuysen is a part, and one Democratic analyst suggested that the 18-year congressman may not get a pass this time. “The Democrats aren’t the only ones who with long knives,” he said.

    This article originally stated that Jeff Gardner was the former campaign manager for Senator John Girgenti. Gardner has never been employed by Girgenti in any way. NJ Spotlight regrets the mistake.