Sometimes in politics, it isn't what is said that is important, but what isn't said. John Farmer Jr., who is serving as the independent tie-breaker for the Congressional Redistricting Commission that held its first meeting yesterday, said virtually nothing about what criteria he would use to make his decision if called upon to choose between competing Democratic and Republican plans to shrink the state's House delegation from 13 to 12 members.
"I hope you don't need my vote because I hope we can reach consensus," Farmer said. "But I am certainly prepared to exercise discretion if called upon" to do so because the Democratic and Republican caucuses cannot agree.
Farmer's insistence that he goes into the redistricting process without any predispositions contrasts sharply with the elaborate criteria set out by Alan Rosenthal, his predecessor as independent tie-breaker on the Legislative Redistricting Commission, which redrew the state's 40 legislative districts last spring.
Rosenthal declared at his first meeting last March that he believed the new legislative map should preserve "continuity of representation" by allowing most incumbents to run for reelection in their current districts and promote "partisan fairness" by approving a map that reflects the partisan leanings of voters. Rosenthal's criteria led Monmouth University professor Patrick Murray to immediately predict that there was no way Democrats could lose control of the legislature as a result of the redistricting process.
Just under a month later, Rosenthal chose a status-quo Democratic map that emphasized incumbent protection to such a degree that even Republicans concede there is no way they can overturn the Democrats' 24-16 edge in the Senate and 47-33 majority in the Assembly in the upcoming November legislative elections; in fact, no more than a few districts are even considered marginally competitive.
Rosenthal was sharply criticized by Republicans at the conclusion of the redistricting process. Farmer served on Rosenthal's redistricting commission staff, yet he was the unanimous choice of both the six Democratic and six Republican members of the congressional redistricting commission to serve as the independent tie-breaker. His promise yesterday to go into the process with an open mind was praised by the chairs of both the Democratic and Republican committee caucuses, former Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D-Camden) and Michael DuHaime, a GOP political operative who is one of Gov. Chris Christie's chief political strategists.
Whether Farmer can walk out of the redistricting process with the approval of both remains to be seen. Rosenthal earned bipartisan praise as the independent tie-breaker on the congressional redistricting commissions following the 1990 and 2000 redistricting process, but was excoriated by Republicans for his decision on legislative redistricting last spring. With Democratic incumbents firmly ensconced in seven districts, Republican congressmen in six, and one seat to be eliminated because New Jersey's population growth failed to keep pace with the nation as a whole, agreement on whose seat to eliminate will not be easy to reach, even though both DuHaime and Roberts expressed the hope that the two sides could reach a compromise, as they did in 2001.
Farmer's selection by both parties earlier this summer came as no surprise to Republican lobbyist Michael Torpey, who came to the hearing to catch up with his former colleague. "John's always been an independent," Torpey noted. Farmer served in the Governor's Counsel's Office under Torpey, the chief counsel to Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, before Whitman promoted him to attorney general. Farmer, whose frequent contributions to the Star-Ledger's "Perspective" section display his independent policy perspective, now serves as dean of the Rutgers University School of Law.
Farmer said he hopes the commission can finish its work before Christmas -- well before the January 17 statutory deadline -- and acknowledged that it is hard to see how the commission could finish its work before November. He said he plans to spend much of the next month studying options, and noted that he has assigned law students from both Rutgers-Newark and Rutgers-Camden to study each of the 13 current congressional districts, as well as to review the experience of past congressional redistricting commissions both in New Jersey and in other states. The commission yesterday scheduled its first public hearing on September 22 at Rutgers-Camden. Farmer said two subsequent hearings will be held, most likely at the Rutgers New Brunswick and Newark campuses. The commission's website, njredistrictingcommission.org, will go live within the next few days, he said.
DuHaime and Roberts both asserted that New Jersey's use of a bipartisan commission with an independent tie-breaker to redraw legislative and congressional maps is preferable to the unbridled gerrymandering that goes on in most states where redistricting is left up to the partisan whims of the legislature and governor.
"We are one of 10 states losing a congressional seat, including one in neighboring Pennsylvania and two in New York State, but New Jersey is the only state losing a congressional seat that has a congressional redistricting commission," Roberts noted.
"Giving the tie-breaking vote to an independent member forces both party caucuses toward a middle ground that "puts the public interest ahead of political interest," he said. "It's not perfect, but it's better than the shenanigans in other states that don't have commissions."
Roberts suggested that the commission should follow a set of criteria in drawing up the new congressional map that would include compliance with the "one person, one vote" U.S. Constitutional requirement and with the Voting Rights Act's protection of existing majority-minority districts; compactness; preservation of "communities of interest"; competitiveness; fairness to both parties; and "responsiveness" -- the idea that districts should be sufficiently competitive so that disgruntled voters would have a real opportunity to vote for change.
DuHaime declined to get into specific criteria, although he did suggest that Gov. Chris Christie's cooperation with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) on pension and healthcare reform last summer could serve as "an example of bipartisanship" for the commission to follow.
Just how long the promise of bipartisanship can last when at least one incumbent Democratic or Republican member of Congress has to lose his seat remains to be seen.
New Jersey's congressional redistricting law sets virtually no criteria for the commission to follow, but there are two population and legal realities that will circumscribe how the new congressional map is drawn.
First, given that much of New Jersey's population growth of 4.25 percent over the past decade was in South Jersey, it is hard to see how Reps. Rob Andrews (D-1), Frank LoBiondo (R-2), Jon Runyon (R-3), and Chris Smith (R-4), whose districts cover the bottom half of the state, could lose their seats in any new redistricting. Second, the federal Voting Rights Act requires that existing majority-minority districts be maintained wherever possible, which protects the districts of Democratic Reps. Donald Payne, who represents a majority African-American District centered in Newark (D-10), and Albio Sires, whose majority Hispanic 13th District cuts through Hudson and Union counties. Their districts will have to grow to pull in additional towns from neighboring districts, but their seats are safe.
That leaves seven incumbent members of Congress -- Democrats Frank Pallone (D-6), Bill Pascrell (D-8), Steve Rothman (D-9) and Rush Holt (D-12), and Republicans Scott Garrett (R-5), Leonard Lance (R-7) and Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11) -- who find themselves in a game of musical chairs that will leave one standing, or, more likely, two jostling for the same seat in a primary or general election battle.
Political speculation abounds, particularly in the wake of a Machiavellian political year in which Democratic power brokers George Norcross Jr., his party's dominant fundraiser in South Jersey, Joseph DiVincenzo, the Essex County Executive, and Brian Stack, the Union City mayor who holds sway in much of Hudson County, have teamed publicly with Christie on issues ranging from public employee pensions and healthcare to charter schools, school vouchers and tenure reform.
Politically, the logical compromise solution would be to leave six Democratic and five Republican House members in place, and pit one Democratic incumbent against a Republican incumbent in a competitive district that both would have an equal chance to win. That is what Connecticut's redistricting commission did in 2001 when it had to reduce its 3-3 congressional delegation to five seats because of population loss. Under such a scenario, Pallone or Holt could find himself pitted against Lance, Rothman against Garrett, or Pascrell against Garrett or Frelinghuysen.
Normally, redistricting commissions protect their delegation's seniority, which is the reason Frelinghuysen, whose seniority has elevated him to "cardinal" as the House Appropriations Committee's subcommittee chairs are known, is not likely to be the Republican House member targeted.
That seniority argument could also be applied to protect Pallone, but one of the hottest political rumors in recent months has Christie and his Republican caucus teaming with Democratic power brokers who have never liked Pallone to make the popular Monmouth County Democrat the odd man out.
"It doesn't have to be a 7-6 vote, you know. It could be 12-1," one veteran political observer noted, referring to the possibility that the Republican and Democratic caucuses could reach agreement on a political "hit" that only Farmer, the independent tie-breaker, would publicly find objectionable