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.
New Jersey's bipartisan legislative redistricting panel has just a few days left to finalize the new map that incorporates the latest Census data. Democratic legislators are crying foul because they say New Jersey Governor Chris Chrsitie is inserting himself in what is supposed to be a "legislative process."
New Jersey is one of just a dozen states or so that have enacted what is considered a "reapportionment reform." The independent Apportionment Commission is designed to prevent some of the self-dealing that can result when an incumbent legislature gets to draw up its own map. This proecess shapes the state's political landscape for the next decade, and time is tight.
According to University of Virginia Political Science Professor Larry Sabato, New Jersey is under more pressure all but five states to complete the reapportionment process in this calendar year. "New Jersey, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky and Virginia all have state legislative elections this year," says Sabato. "In Virginia we've already had to delay our primary."
So in Jersey, with elections this November for all 120 seats in both the State Senate and Assembly, the bipartisan commission has to quickly turn the latest Census data into an updated state legislative district map to avoid having to delay its June primaries, the same crunch that occurred with the 2000 census.
The New Jersey Apportionment Commission is made up of 10 members evenly divided between representatives picked by the chairs of the state Republican and Democratic parties. The current panel includes some incumbent state legislators from both parties, including Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver. Senate President Stephen Sweeney has also sat in. In the event of an impasse between the two partisan factions, the state constitution provides for the appointment of an 11th, tie-breaking commissioner by the State Supreme Court Chief Justice.
This cycle, that tie-breaker is Professor Alan Rosenthal, who served in a similar capacity in 1992 and 2001 for the state's Congressional re-apportionment panel. As the deadline approaches, press accounts of the panels deliberations have characterized it as a kind of shuttle diplomacy between the two partisan factions with Rosenthal as go-between.
So this past weekend, Governor Chris Chrsitie's spontaneous appearance at the Heldrich Hotel in New Brunswick, and his reported presence in the marathon closed-door sessions of the Apportionment Commission, had panel Democrats sputtering. Chrsitie's press office would only say the governor was at the Heldrich but did not offer any details as to what he was up to during his visit. A call to Professor Alan Rosenthal looking for confirmation of the governor's participation was not returned.
Veteran Bergen Record political columnist Charlie Stile writes that Christie surfacing at the commission meeting was "unprecedented." Stile reports that when Christie spotted reporters waiting for him as he went to leave the Heldrich Sunday, the normally extroverted Governor "demonstrated a nimble footwork not seen on a big man since Fred Flintstone pivoted on his big toes during the 'Bedrock Twitch'."
Professor Peter Wooley , who directs Fairleigh Dickinson's Public Mind Poll, says Chrsitie's keen interest in the panel's inner workings should not come as a surprise. The governor has a lot riding on whether or not the new map is one that lets Republicans pick up seats in the Senate and Assembly.
"In the back of his mind is the question of whether or not the legislative elections later this year in 2011 can somehow be used as a referendum on the Democratic Party in New Jersey and on his reform," says Wooley. "National Republicans will also be watching closely."
New Jersey Democratic State Committee Chairman John Wisniewski said Christie couldn't resist being part of the redistricting process.
"I don’t think we should be surprised that Gov. Christie has injected himself in this legislative task," he said. "I don’t think it helps the process, and it dispels any reasonable doubt as to who’s calling the shots on the Republican side of this commission. As for us, we’ll continue to abide by the state constitution and the guidance of the 11th member."
New Jersey policy analyst Ingrid Reed says the Governor's decision to show up might leave him open for criticism. "If the Governor can speak to the Commission directly on this matter, should other people be as well? It raises questions," says Reed.
So how do the Republicans involved in the map making process feel about the Governor's presence on Sunday? Republican Assemblyman Jay Webber leads the Republican side of the bi-partisan Reapportionment Commission. His chief of staff Tom Weisert said that Webber was "sequestered" in the panel's deliberations and was not available to comment. "They have until the end of Sunday," said Weisert of the Commission looming deadline.
Right now in the Senate, Democrats have a 24 to 16 edge over Republicans. In the Assembly, Democrats have a weighty 14 seat advantage. A separate panel will draw New Jersey's Congressional districts, and both maps can be challenged in court.