Remapping New Jersey’s Congressional Districts

Mark J. Magyar | October 12, 2011 | More Issues
When the redistricting commission completes its complex calculus -- and equally complex compromises -- New Jersey will have lost one congressional district

It looks as if at least one New Jersey congressman is going to get coal in his stocking this year.

John Farmer, the Rutgers-Newark Law School dean appointed as the independent tie-breaker for the New Jersey Congressional Redistricting Commission, said yesterday he expects the commission to meet from December 19 to December 21 in an attempt to complete a new congressional map before Christmas, rather than pushing up against the January 17, 2012 deadline.

Congressional Expando

With New Jersey losing one congressional seat because its population grew more slowly than the nation as a whole, the commission has the unenviable task of deciding which two of the state’s seven Democrats and six Republicans will wind up in a head-to-head battle in a single district in the 2012 election.

“When I try cases, I always like to have a jury on Christmas Week when I want to get a result,” Farmer said in an interview at the conclusion of the panel’s third public hearing in New Brunswick yesterday afternoon. “We’ll see if it holds for a process as complex as this one.”

Farmer said he has 17 law students from Rutgers-Newark and Rutgers-Camden conducting detailed studies of the makeup of each of the current congressional districts, and added that he would be meeting individually not only with the 13 incumbent New Jersey congressman, but also with their potential challengers.

Robert Gordon of the Bayshore Tea Party, which took an active role in the legislative redistricting process last spring, submitted a proposed map yesterday, but Farmer said neither the five-member Democratic delegation nor the five-member GOP delegation has submitted a redistricting map to him for his consideration yet.
“That doesn’t mean they haven’t been working on them,” Farmer said. “I expect we’ll be seeing maps from both parties within the next few weeks.”
Yesterday, the leaders of the two caucuses said they were waiting for Farmer to take the lead in beginning the process of trying to bring the parties together.

“It’s the job of the independent tie-breaker to try to reach out to both parties to see if we can reach a compromise,” said former Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, the Camden County Democrat who heads the five-member Democratic caucus. “Both caucuses are developing their own maps and strategies, but the process is really driven by the independent member.”

“It’s up to the Dean,” Michael DuHaime, Governor Christie’s campaign strategist who is the leader of the five-member GOP caucus, commented succinctly.

Impeccable Credentials

That it is up to Farmer is at least somewhat of a surprise. Farmer’s credentials are impeccable. He served as state Attorney General under Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, served as counsel to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the so-called 9/11 Commission) under former GOP Gov. Tom Kean, and demonstrated an independent centrist political perspective as a frequent columnist for the Star-Ledger, where his father John Farmer Sr. is a longtime Washington correspondent and columnist. But Farmer also served as a counsel to independent tie-breaker Alan Rosenthal on the Legislative Redistricting Commission last spring, and that process ended in a furor.

To the consternation of Christie and the GOP, Rosenthal ended up choosing a Democratic map that protected incumbents — and virtually guaranteed continuation of Democratic legislative majorities in the Senate and Assembly — over a Republican proposal that would have created more competitive districts. But while Republicans were furious with Rosenthal, they felt sufficiently positive about Farmer’s performance that GOP party leaders, like their Democratic counterparts, recommended Farmer’s name to New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner to serve as the 11th member of the Congressional Redistricting Commission.

And to the surprise of the GOP, Democrats also felt confident about putting Farmer, whose public service has been under Republicans, on their short list.

DuHaime and Roberts yesterday remained circumspect in their comments on congressional redistricting, giving Farmer room to potentially broker a compromise that both parties can agree upon. The 2001 Congressional Redistricting Commission — on which Rosenthal, ironically, served as the 11th member — did reach a compromise that both parties and the state’s 13 members of Congress could agree upon,

Incumbents and Challengers

Congressional redistricting is not as fiercely contested as legislative redistricting because it does not directly affect the political clout of the state party leaders who appoint the commission. While a favorable map can swing control of the state Senate or Assembly, a shift of one or two New Jersey congressional seats is not likely to shift control of the U.S. House of Representatives. It is only a life-and-death issue for New Jersey’s congressional incumbents and their potential challengers. Further, because of the importance of seniority in determining appointment to powerful House committees and subcommittee chairmanships, the state’s Congressional Redistricting Commission has an interest in protecting members of Congress with seniority, such as Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysten (R-11), who has risen to become a “cardinal,” as the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee chairs are known.

Previous court decisions essentially require the creation of congressional districts with exact population equality – the state’s current 13 districts differed by just one voter when they were created in 2001. As a result, congressional districts — unlike legislative districts — routinely split municipalities. Nevertheless, the Congressional Redistricting Commission does face certain limitations in deciding how to divide 13 congressional districts into 12.

First, the U.S. Voting Rights Act and a considerable body of court decisions interpreting that act and the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution guarantee the preservation of any congressional districts in which a single minority group currently makes up a majority of the population. As a result, the African-American majority 10th District represented by Rep. Donald Payne, a Newark Democrat, and the Hispanic majority 13th District represented by Rep. Albio Sires, a Democrat from Union City, must be preserved as majority-minority districts. Both districts grew less rapidly than the rest of the state, but the commission will have to expand those districts south to pick up more population from Union County or west to pick up more of Essex, Bergen and possibly Passaic counties.

Second, population in the eight southernmost counties — Ocean, Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Salem — has grown faster than in the rest of the state. So while all 12 of the congressional districts will have to add at least some population, the four congressional districts that represent these seven counties (plus part of Monmouth) will have to remain largely intact. That protects three Republican incumbents — Reps. Frank LoBiondo (R-2), Jon Runyon (R-3), and Chris Smith (R-4) — and Democratic Rep. Rob Andrews (D-1) from losing out in what will essentially be a game of musical chairs. Runyon, as the state’s only rookie congressman, would have been a logical choice to have his district combined into that of another congressman. But in redistricting, geography is destiny, and Runyon’s destiny looks safe.

That leaves seven districts in central, north central and northwest New Jersey that will have to be combined into six. Four are represented by Democrats: Reps. Frank Pallone (D-6), Bill Pascrell (D-8), Steve Rothman (D-9) and Rush Holt (D-12); three by Republicans: Reps. Scott Garrett (R-5), Leonard Lance (R-7) and Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11).

Lance is the junior among the Republicans in that group, and the westward pressure from expanding Payne’s and Sires’ districts and the need to push Smith’s 4th District at least somewhat north could push a Democrat like Pallone or Holt into a head-to-head battle with Lance in a newly competitive district. A second logical scenario could pit Republican Garrett against one of two Democrats, Rothman, or Pascrell.

Democrat vs. Republican

Pitting a Democrat against a Republican would be seen as fairer than pushing two Democrats or two Republicans into the same district, which argues against the Lance-Garrett, Frelinghuysen-Garrett, Pascrell-Rothman and Pallone-Holt scenarios that the two parties will undoubtedly start out arguing for before getting serious about proposing a map that could meet with Farmer’s approval.

The commission held its second and third required public hearings yesterday morning at Rutgers-Newark and yesterday afternoon at Rutgers’ New Brunswick campus, although Farmer said additional hearings may very well be held.
Speakers representing New Jersey’s growing African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American, and Arab-American communities urged the commission to make sure that their population clusters are placed together in the same congressional district to ensure that they make up a sufficient bloc of voters to guarantee that their interests are heeded.

Jerry Vattamalla of the Asian-American Education and Legal Defense Fund urged that Bergen County’s Korean communities in Fort Lee, Edgewater Park, Leonia and Palisades Park be kept together in one district and that Middlesex County’s South and East Asian communities be placed together in another. Similarly, Prospect Park Mayor Mohamed T. Khairullah wanted to keep the Hispanic, African-American and Arab communities clustered around Paterson, Clifton and Passaic City together in a single district, and Essex County Freeholder Rolando Bobadilla called for Newark’s diverse Hispanic-dominated North Ward to remain in Sires’ Hispanic majority-minority 13th District.
“We are prepared to engage in litigation if we believe any Voting Rights Act or constitutional issues are not addressed,” Jerome Harris, speaking for both the Black Issues Convention and a coalition of African-American, Hispanic and Asian groups, warned the commission.

Harris noted that minority groups represent almost 40 percent of New Jersey’s population, but Sires and Payne are the only two minority representatives in New Jersey’s current 13-member delegation.

Ed Potosnak, the Democratic candidate who lost to Lance in the 2010 7th District congressional election, urged the commission to make districts more competitive and more compact.

“As I campaigned across the sprawling 7th District, many people told me they were not going to participate because their votes didn’t matter and that the 7th was a Republican district,” said Potosnak, who contended that the lack of competitive districts “creates doubts about the legitimacy of American democracy and creates the hyper-partisanship that characterizes Congress today.”

“You can end that,” Potosnak told the panel. “A competitive district is one where each candidate has a chance of winning if he gets his voters out — and not just in ‘wave’ elections.” To ensure that voters are not disenfranchised, “we need to end predetermined elections,” he said.

The youngest person to testify took the longest view of how to reform the redistricting process. Zach Israel, a Franklin Township resident who is a senior at Bard College and worked for Democrats Holt and Menendez, advised the commission to protect the state’s congressional seniority on both sides of the aisle. “Whether it’s [Republican] Chris Smith or [Democrat] Frank Pallone, we should preserve our seniority in Congress,” he said.

Israel also called for the New Jersey Legislature to consider revamping its redistricting process to install the independent California commission model in time for the 2020 redistricting round. California’s model selects five Democratic, five Republican, and four independent commissioners through a mixed application and lottery process, and requires a majority vote from all three of the groups to approve a map.

“What New Jersey has now is better than having the state legislature decide, but it is not as good as average citizens having the ability to decide their districts, rather than having political appointees do it,” Israel said, adding that he meant no disrespect to the commissioners.
The commission’s political appointees laughed appreciatively. “We’re going to make this process as open as it can be,” Roberts promised.

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