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Congressional Redistricting Commission in NJ May Focus on 5th and 9th Districts

Thursday, December 22, 2011

New Jersey's Congressional Redistricting Commission will wrap up its new map before Christmas, and it's beginning to look like Congressmen Steve Rothman (D-9) and Scott Garrett (R-5) will be the two getting coal in their stockings.

While the commission continued to meet behind closed doors last night, all indications are that  Rothman, an early supporter of President Obama in his 2008 primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, will be facing off against Garrett, the most conservative member of New Jersey's House delegation, in a matchup of incumbents in a redrawn district stretching across the state's northern border.

Because New Jersey's population grew more slowly than other states', the Congressional Redistricting Commission faces the unenviable task of consolidating the states' 13 congressional districts into 12.

Democrats currently hold a 7-6 advantage in the House delegation, and John Farmer, the Rutgers Newark Law School dean who is serving as the independent tie-breaker for the 13-member commission, has been pushing the six-member Republican and Democratic delegations toward a "fair fight" compromise solution that would pit an incumbent Democrat against an incumbent Republican in a competitive district.

"We're looking to finish up tonight," former Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, chair of the six-member Democratic delegation, said last night. "That's what the independent member wants."

Farmer had originally scheduled the commission to meet Monday, December 19, through Wednesday, December 21, in an effort to reach a decision, with the option of reconvening after the holidays if necessary in order to meet the January 17 legal deadline for the commission to complete its work.

But sufficient progress was being made last night that Farmer and the partisan delegations were looking to reach agreement by 10 this morning in order to have the commission agree to send out the required 24-hour legal notice for a formal commission meeting and vote tomorrow (Friday) in Trenton. 

By all accounts, Garrett, a Sussex County Republican, and Rothman, a Bergen County Democrat, appear to be the odd men out.

Commission members and staff declined to discuss the plan itself, and one commissioner cautioned that "anything I tell you could change." Michael DuHaime, Gov. Christie's political strategist and the chair of the Republican delegation, insisted that "this is not down to a single geographic area," and noted that decisions made in one part of the state have repercussions on district lines elsewhere.

But Tom Jackson, the president of the Garden State Bar Association who was part of a delegation of minority leaders who met with the panel yesterday morning, came out and reported that the commission was indeed focusing on the state's northern rim, where Garrett's 5th District, Rothman's 9th and Democratic Congressman William Pascrell's 8th Districts come together. Combining the Garrett and Rothman districts is the easiest fit.

While the commission theoretically could combine any two of the state's 13 districts, population figures and U.S. Voting Rights Act protections for minority representatives effectively forced the commission to consider only seven districts for consolidation.

While every district in the state needs to add population, the four South Jersey districts represented by Reps. Rob Andrews (D-1), Frank LoBiondo (R-2), Jon Runyon (R-3), and Chris Smith (R-4) are relatively close to the ideal population of 732,658. As a group, the four districts need to add only 164,000 residents; presumably, Smith's district will need to push north into the districts represented by Reps. Rush Holt (D-12) and Frank Pallone (D-6) to pick up that population.

But the district that needs to add the most voters is the urban 10th District, which includes most of Newark and other Essex County cities and is represented by Democratic Rep. Donald Payne, the state's only African-American congressman. The district needs to add 98,315 voters, and the Hudson-dominated 13th District, represented by Democratic Rep. Albio Sires, the state's only Hispanic congressman, needs to add 47,693 more. 

The seats of Payne and Sires are effectively protected by the Voting Rights Act, and because their districts are surrounded by the Democratic 9th, 8th and 6th Districts, the only place for them to get the 148,000 voters they need is to take them away from fellow Democrats, pushing the districts of Rothman, Pascrell, and possibly Pallone further west to pick up suburban towns with more Republican voters.

The reality of the four South Jersey districts pushing north against Holt and Pallone, and of the two majority-minority districts pushing west into the districts of Rothman and Pascrell or south into Pallone territory meant the commission really had only two options if it wanted to create a fair fight competitive district matching up a Republican and a Democratic incumbent.

The first option, which was originally considered the likely scenario, would have matched Rep. Leonard Lance, (R-7), who ranks second-lowest in seniority in the House delegation, against Holt or Pallone in central New Jersey.

The second option, which now appears to be the choice, would match Garrett against either Rothman or Pascrell. Rothman, whose district is farther north, was always considered more vulnerable. Pascrell outranks Rothman in seniority and his district ranks third in the state in minority population (54.3 percent), bringing together large populations of African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and Middle Eastern voters in a Passaic County-dominated district centered on Paterson, Passaic, and Clifton. Dividing the minority populations in this district would certainly have provoked a lawsuit -- which was probably one of the not-too-subtle messages that Jackson's group communicated to the commission yesterday.

Pascrell geographically would be easier to pit against Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-13) than Garrett. But Frelinghuysen is one of the most senior members of the New Jersey delegation and serves as a House Appropriations subcommittee chair, and his Morris County-centered district is one of the most compact in the state.

Population changes work against Rothman and Garrett too. Rothman's 9th District is 71,279 voters short of the ideal size -- the third-highest number in the state – and Garrett's5th District is 66,107 voters short, ranking fourth. Pascrell's 8th District, which is 72,234 voters short, could pick up some southern Bergen voters from Rothman, as could Payne and Sires, while Lance and Frelinghuysen, who are each almost 60,000 voters short, would need to push north to carve out the voters they need  from Garrett's 5th District .

That would leave Rothman and Garrett to battle it out in a competitive district stretching across the state's northern border.

NJ Spotlight is an online news service providing insight and information on issues critical to New Jersey, with the aim of informing and engaging the state’s communities and businesses. Read more From New Jersey Spotlight.

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