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NJ Congressional Redistricting Speculation

So here we go again. Another New Jersey redistricting commission will sequester itself in New Brunswick’s Heldrich Hotel. This time, Congress is up for grabs. What will happen? Who knows? But we can speculate.

The outcome of Congressional redistricting is much harder to predict than this year’s legislative process. For one, the New Jersey Constitution has a number of standards that limit how the legislative lines can be drawn (e.g. keeping municipalities whole), whereas it offers absolutely no guidance on the Congressional map. Also, this year’s legislative tie-breaker, Alan Rosenthal, showed his hand early in the process, laying out a series of standards that pretty much locked him into choosing the Democratic map. The Congressional tie-breaker, John Farmer, has avoided making any public pronouncements of the standards he will use.

The process begins with the commission’s Democratic and Republican teams each presenting a map for Farmer’s consideration. It is certain that these initial maps will show 7-5 splits, 7 districts that favor their party and 5 that favor the other party. Surprise, surprise!

Both sides will justify their maps under the guise of partisan “fairness.” This is the principle that the distribution of Congressional districts should match the partisan inclinations of the statewide electorate. Of course, this also means is that none of the districts should be competitive (which is basically what happened during the 2001 process).

In other words, the Democrats will argue that the state leans more Democratic, so they should have more districts. The Republicans will do the same for their side. Regardless of whose analysis is wrong or right, the fairness doctrine as a primary consideration lacks merit, because frankly it matters very little to New Jersey’s influence in Congress. How exactly does it help the state if one extra Representative (out of 435 total) belongs to one party or the other?

Indeed, it could be argued that a 6-6 split actually gives our state its best chance at having influence. Given the number of times control of the House has changed hands over the past few years, always having 6 members in the majority actually increases our chances of placing members high on the Congressional power list.

At any rate, Dean Farmer has indicated that he may be unwilling to entertain the fairness argument as an opening salvo. He has publicly stated that the bulk of New Jersey voters are independent. To be clear, this shows a misunderstanding of New Jersey’s electorate and how our lack of electoral competition discourages partisan voter registration. However, I agree with what appears to be the underlying reason he has made these comments – the “fairness” doctrine simply should not be the primary consideration when redrawing New Jersey’s Congressional districts.

I have already laid out my general views on the matter, both in print and in testimony to the Commission. New Jersey as a state has one of the least compact (i.e. most gerrymandered) Congressional maps. In fact, New Jersey’s 6th District is considered one of the top ten offenders in the country. Until we fix this lack of compactness and the consequent splitting of communities of interest, the people in each district will lack effective representation, regardless of “partisan fairness.”

For the sake of the state as a whole, I would like to see a map that does the following (these are general guidelines):

Move District 1 slightly south to pick up more of Gloucester County and swing District 2 a little north to take in the parts of southern Ocean County that are in the Philadelphia media market.

Make District 3 primarily Burlington with bits of western Camden and southern Mercer so that it is almost entirely in the Philly media market.

Slide District 4 east so that it is a northern Ocean/eastern Monmouth district.

Consolidate District 6 into mostly northwest Monmouth and Middlesex.

Consolidate District 12 into Mercer and southern Middlesex/Somerset.

Make District 7 mainly a Hunterdon/Warren/Sussex district and expand District 11 north.

Expand District 10 into Union and make District 13 more contiguous by adding a little more of Hudson, Elizabeth and Newark.

Expand District 8 east, which basically means that the northern part of District 9 and the eastern part of District 5 would be combined.

I think these general guidelines would go a long way to increasing the representativeness and responsiveness of our Congressional delegation.

Now, I certainly don’t know whether any of this is in line with Farmer’s thinking. A cloak of secrecy has been maintained over the entire process. But from his few public statements, I think it is unlikely that Farmer will approve a map that give either side an easy majority in the delegation. Furthermore, I think his preference for reducing New Jersey’s delegation from 13 to the required 12 will be to force a Democrat v. Republican “fair fight” rather than an intraparty face-off. Finally, I think he will seek a map that reduces the likelihood that any of the state’s most influential members from either party will be significantly threatened.

To start with, Donald Payne (D-10) is safe under the Voting Rights Act – you can’t break up a district where a minority group comprises a majority of the voting age population. Albio Sires (D-13) is also safe. While his seat does not technically meet the threshold of being majority-Hispanic in voting age population, it is in total population. It would be politically untenable to alter his district significantly.

The southern seats (Districts 1 through 4) are also safe, because they all have to march north. It should be noted, though, that under my preferred scenario above, Jon Runyan (R-3) could find himself in a more competitive district.

Farmer is unlikely to be amenable to a map that significantly harms Frank Pallone (D-6) or Rush Holt (D-12) because they are likely to have influence in leadership if the Democrats regain control of the House in the near future.

On the Republican side, influence is less clear. Chris Smith (R-4) is the most senior member of New Jersey’s delegation, although he has had some conflicts with his leadership. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11) also has longevity (both personally and in his family’s roots to the earliest governance of the American Republic) – so while he may not be the most influential member he is likely safe.

Leonard Lance (R-7) is a relative newcomer, serving only his second term. While this may make him vulnerable in terms of seniority, he is seen as having potential for future leadership in his party. Furthermore, putting him at risk would mean pitting him against Holt or Pallone (see above). So Lance is likely safe.

This leaves Scott Garrett (R-5), Bill Pascrell (D-8) and Steve Rothman (D-9). Garrett was first elected in 2002 and is a darling of the Tea Party wing of his party. This means he has no allies at the table in the redistricting process.

Pascrell and Rothman were first elected in 1996. That actually gives them slightly more seniority than Rush Holt. However, neither appears to have the same level of influence that Holt does. Rothman did garner attention by being the first major Garden State politico to back Barack Obama in 2008, but this doesn’t seem to have paid any influence dividends. My sense is that Pascrell may have more friends at the table than Rothman does.

Therefore, I see a mash-up of districts 5 and 9 as the most likely outcome of this process (although it’s hard to say right now if that would end up being a lean-Democrat or lean-Republican district).

Of course, I could be wrong. But we won’t know that until white smoke emerges from the Heldrich. In the meantime, all we can do is speculate.