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The Latino Dilemma – The Numbers

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

[2/18 note: There is some debate whether Portuguese-American Albert Coutinho should be counted as a Latino legislator.]

My last column examined the legal underpinnings of redistricting in terms of suggestions offered by New Jersey’s Latino community. In this column, I break down the numbers behind some of those proposals.

Keep in mind that the key concern raised by testimony at recent public hearings is to increase Latino representation. It currently stands at 6% of the legislature versus 18% of the total population.

One proposed district is based on the premise that the Latino populations of Paterson and Passaic form a joint “community of interest.” The courts have said that keeping communities of interest intact is an important consideration. These communities are not only racial or ethnic. They can be defined as any group of people who have a common political interest (e.g. residents of rural areas or shore towns which have shared policy concerns).

Federal courts generally frown upon barefaced attempts to split or “crack” communities of interest during the redistricting process, although New Jersey’s commission was able to defend the amount of unpacking in 2001. On the other hand, there does not seem to be a strong legal precedent to force mapmakers to redraw districts specifically to increase the size of communities of interest. [The only caveat being that existing majority minority districts must be maintained.]

As for the case of putting Paterson and Passaic into the same district, the proposal fails at a more basic legal level. Before mapmakers can consider “communities of interest,” they must ensure that each district has a relatively equal population and a contiguous border. That means in order to join Paterson and Passaic, mapmakers must include either Clifton or Elmwood Park/Garfield to maintain contiguity. The former district would have 300,116 residents and the latter would have 265,870. Both options are too far above the 219,797 ideal population size to pass legal muster.

Another idea proposed at the hearings is to put Perth Amboy (78% Hispanic) and New Brunswick (50% Hispanic) in the same district. This one is doable only by joining them with East Brunswick, South River, Sayreville, and South Amboy. This district would have a total population of 220,850 – spot-on under the equal population standard – and would meet most standards for compactness. [Of note, it would also require that Carteret and/or Woodbridge be spun off to a district with Union County towns.]

However, the question remains whether this district would enhance Latino representation. In testimony to the Legislative Apportionment Commission, Perth Amboy’s Mayor Wilda Diaz lamented the fact that her district – the 19th – is represented by three white men. She noted that Hispanics make up 31% of the population in this district.

By comparison, the proposed district anchored by Perth Amboy and New Brunswick would be 36% Hispanic. In fact, that’s the highest percentage you can achieve in any of the possible district configurations that include Perth Amboy. So would an increase from 31% to 36% propel more Latinos into the legislature?

Let’s take a look at the current district populations and representation for both African-Americans and Latinos. Currently, 13 New Jersey legislative districts have populations over 20% Hispanic. Latinos hold seats in just 7 of those districts (or 8 if you include Albert Coutinho in the count). It’s a little better – .4. 5 of 7 – in districts with a Hispanic population of 30% or more. However, of the 21 total legislative seats in these districts, Latinos occupy just 6 (or 29%) 7 (or 33%).

By contrast, 12 New Jersey districts have black populations over 20%. African-American legislators hold seats in 10 of those districts (plus another seat in a district with a smaller black population). It’s 6 of 6 in districts with a 30% or greater black population, with African-Americans holding 10 of these 18 seats (or 56%).

Is there a higher threshold of population share for Latino representation in the state legislature than there is for African-American representation? There is currently one majority minority Latino district in the state – Hudson County’s 33rd, with a 54% Hispanic population. It is represented by a Latino and a Latina in the General Assembly, and a white male in the Senate – who also happens to be mayor of a city that is 85% Hispanic.

Therefore, the Hispanic voters in this district appear to have full opportunity to elect candidates of their preferences (noting that federal guidelines do not say that the preference necessarily has to be for someone of the same race or ethnicity). On the other hand, the neighboring 32nd district has a 49% Hispanic population, but is represented by one Latino in the legislature.

What will happen after the new lines are drawn? The wild card in this is the constitutional need to reduce the number of districts touching Jersey City from three to two. Under one scenario, parts of Jersey City would be pulled out of the 32rd, thus requiring a couple of towns, such as West New York and Guttenberg, to move from the 33rd to the 32nd to even out the population. This would make the 32nd a majority minority district, but may cut the 33rd to below 50% Hispanic.

Another scenario would swap North Bergen and Hoboken and pull in a couple of Bergen County towns, ending up with a 33rd district that is more than 7-in-10 Hispanic, while the 32nd would drop to 3-in-10 Hispanic. Which, if either, option would better enhance Latino representation? It’s not clear.

Even if there is a population tipping point, it’s just not possible to draw many – if any – more districts with significantly higher Latino populations. This is due to the geographic dispersion of the state’s ethnic populations. Groups may be concentrated in certain cities and towns, but it is physically impossible to link those towns on a map that can withstand legal scrutiny.

At the Jersey City hearing, Republican Commissioner Bill Palatucci pointedly asked Assemblywoman Annette Quijano how she first won the Democratic nomination for her seat – by receiving the party line or by primarying a sitting legislator. Not surprisingly, it was the former. This exchange illustrates the reality that ethnic representation has as much, if not more, to do with party organization power than it does with the size of ethnic voting blocs at the polls.

African-Americans have demonstrated success at securing party backing in districts where they comprise more than 1-in-5 residents. Latinos have not enjoyed the same level of success. It’s not clear that any potential map configuration can do much to change that.