WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
Bob Hennelly appeared on the Brian Lehrer Show on December 23rd to discuss this piece. Listen above.
Numbers released earlier this week by the U.S. Census Bureau show that the population of the United States continues to shift to the South and West. And as the population shifts, so does power in the U.S. House of Representatives. Based on the census numbers, both New Jersey and New York will have to redraw their Congressional districts to accommodate shrinking Congressional delegations. New Jersey will give up one House seat and and New York will lose two.
Procedurally, New York and New Jersey handle reapportionment differently. But in both Albany and Trenton, the Census data informs the mapping not only of the state legislative districts but also of U.S. Congressional district boundaries.
In New Jersey, the State Senate and Assembly have district lines that they hold in common, with two assembly members and one senator coming from each district.
In New York, the Assembly and State Senate have their own district boundaries. These boundaries have resulted in a Democrat-dominated Assembly and a Republican majority in the State Senate. Dick Dadey of Citizens Union says that that "self-arrangement" is the result of a grand bargain struck by party leaders from both major parties to assure their continued dominance of their respective chambers.
Dadey and Citizens Unions have been working with former Mayor Ed Koch, who is also the driver behind New York Uprising, a broad based coalition looking to reform Albany. One of the group's central program planks is the creation of an independent and non-partisan Redistricting Commission.
Dadey says historically when it came to redistricting, partisan party politics trumped other priorities. That, Dadey reasons, has lead to district lines that undermine the ability of minority communties to gain the political power commensurate with their population numbers.
“In northern Manhattan, the Dominican communities that has a very large community was being divided between two assembly districts in order to protect the re-election of a white incumbent," recalled Dadey.
Because of well-documented past violations of the U.S. Voting Rights Act, any redistricting that impacts the Bronx, Queens or Brooklyn must also be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Koch and his reform coalition say they are counting on a commitment from incoming Governor Andrew Cuomo that he won't sign off on any redistricting map that is the product of the traditional partisan gerrymandering. Dadey said they will have to hit the ground running in Albany once Cuomo takes office to get their alternative redistricting model passed by the legislature in the first few months of the new session.
In New Jersey, there is little controversy about the process. A Congressional Redistricting Commission, in place since the 1960s, is made up of six Democrats, six Republicans and a 13th, non-partisan tie-breaker. But in the past, the outcome has been challenged in federal court and could be this time as well.
Peter Wooley, political science professor at Fairleigh Dickinson, said the process is most often skewed against the most junior members on Congress, like newly-elected Republican Jon Runyan and one-term incumbent Republican Leonard Lance.
“So for Lance and Runyan, really they each have two strikes against them, in the sense that they’re both relatively recently elected to Congress and they’re already in the party that has a minority in the delegation,” said Wooley.
Come January, the New Jersey delegation party split will be seven Democrats to six Republicans.
Ten years ago, during the last reapportionment, New Jersey Republicans unsuccessfully challenged the Redistricting Commission's final product in federal court. Republicans asserted that the 2000 plan unconstitutionally diluted African-American voting strength by spreading those voters concentrated in and around Newark into three separate Congressional Districts.
The last time New Jersey lost a House seat was in 1990.