One of the dirtiest political processes is about to take place in a state with one of the most corrupt political reputations. But parties involved in the Garden State’s redistricting are taking a strikingly bipartisan tone.
The 13 members of the New Jersey Redistricting Commission will begin meeting today in New Brunswick and will initiate the process of hashing out the state’s new Congressional boundaries.
The group has a grim task ahead because New Jersey lost a seat in this round of reapportionment. The map the panel draws will play a large role in determining which Member will not return in 2013.
Yet the commission members are headed into the process with a positive tone.
“I would anticipate a spirited exchange between both sides, but ultimately, we’ll all work together for a map that makes sense given the changes we’ve seen in New Jersey over the last decade,” Republican Commission Caucus Chairman Mike DuHaime said.
The commission is made up of six Democrats, six Republicans and one independent member.
“I want to keep the tone as civil as possible,” commission member John Farmer Jr. added.
And a senior state Democratic Party official described the process as “civil and professional in tone.”
Any map passed must get seven votes from the group. The commission delegations from each party have been plotting out different map scenarios that could help their party’s incumbents and still win the vote of the 13th independent member who is known in New Jersey circles as “the tiebreaker.” The tiebreaker this year is Farmer, the dean of Rutgers School of Law-Newark.
Farmer is politically unaligned. He served in the administration of Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R), but over the years he has gained the trust of Democrats. When the time came for the 12 partisan commissioners to choose the independent, they unanimously selected Farmer.
“To the extent possible, I want the map to be driven by demographic changes that have occurred,” Farmer told Roll Call.
Although New Jersey grew in population during the past 10 years, it did not keep pace with the rest of the country. None of the state’s 13 incumbents have given any indication they are retiring, and so the dilemma now amounts to a political game of musical chairs.
Trying to prognosticate which Member will be left out is virtually impossible.
“I’m not leaning toward any particular scenario,” Farmer said. “That’s why we’re having the discussion. I want to hear what they’re proposing, and then we’ll argue back and forth and negotiate.”
“What I wouldn’t want to see happen is that they just pick a Member and wipe that person out and everybody else stays the same and just absorbs his district,” Farmer said. “That can’t happen.”
And it’s not just a matter of merging two districts into one.
“You’re talking four districts into three, or five districts into four,” a Republican commission source said. “Two Members get combined but not necessarily two districts.”
In the lead-up to this week, Democrats and Republicans have held separate meetings to plot strategy.
“It’s kind of like a jigsaw puzzle in that if you move one town into one district, it has a domino effect,” the Republican source said. “It’s probably somewhere between a jigsaw puzzle, ‘Risk,’ dominoes and chess.”
Rep. Donald Payne (D), who represents the Newark-based 10th district, is viewed as the safest incumbent. The census determined the majority-minority district now has the smallest population in the state. But as part of the Voting Rights Act compliance, it will likely be off the table for elimination.
His neighbors might not fair so well. The 10th district is part of a densely populated area outside of New York City that did not keep pace with the rest of the state in population growth. Republicans are looking at the area as the site of possible changes.
Incumbents in that area are Democratic Reps. Bill Pascrell and Steven Rothman and Republican Rep. Scott Garrett. A state Democratic official added Rep. Albio Sires (D) to the safe column because he is the state’s only Hispanic Representative and removing a minority from the House delegation is “unrealistic.”
“There’s no place where there’s that kind of logjam of districts together in a very small geographic area that all need to gain populations,” the Republican said.
Democrats are looking to the northwest region of the state to eliminate a seat. The Congressmen representing those areas are Garrett and GOP Reps. Leonard Lance and Rodney Frelinghuysen. Despite the slow growth in the area Republicans are targeting, the Democratic official noted that New Jersey is an inherently Democratic-leaning state and that a “six-six delegation is absurd.”
Farmer assigned a different Rutgers law student to serve as an expert for each of the state’s 13 districts. Additionally, he met with each Member of Congress to get a sense of “what should stay or go” in a new map.
Throughout the fall, the commission sought feedback through public hearings and the Internet on how to approach redistricting.
The hope is the commission will produce a map later this week, but the meetings were scheduled to allow a time cushion in the event a resolution is not immediate. If the group fails to pass a map before or on Jan. 17, the state’s Supreme Court will take up the matter.