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Blame it on the Jersey Shore.
Or blame it on all of New Jersey, really.
New Jersey’s coastal and beach-laden Cape May County lost 4.9 percent of its population, and while the Garden State’s total population increased from 2000 to 2010, it didn’t keep pace with the rest of the country. That means New Jersey will go from 13 to 12 Representatives come January 2013. With no retirements on the horizon, it sets up the familiar redistricting game of musical chairs: 13 Members but only 12 seats.
New Jersey’s Constitution mandates Congressional redistricting be completed by a panel consisting of six Democrats, six Republicans and an independent 13th member who serves as chairman and is chosen by the partisan members. John Farmer Jr., the dean of Rutgers School of Law-Newark, was unanimously chosen last week as the independent vote. Farmer was the state attorney general under Republican Govs. Christie Todd Whitman and Donald DiFrancesco. He also served as senior counsel on the 9/11 Commission.
“I’m going into this with a fairly open mind,” Farmer told Roll Call. “I’m independent, which means that I’m one of the majority of voters in New Jersey, not a registered Democrat or registered Republican.”
There are a number of different scenarios that could play out, though all are speculation at this point because the redistricting panel has not begun its work.
Republicans see Democratic northeastern New Jersey, where districts need to gain substantial population, as the best place to get rid of a seat.
“That’s a place where you might see some consolidation,” said one of the Republicans on the commission. The member pointed to the fact that the 8th, 9th and 10th districts need to gain the most population in the new map. “The three districts that are the most underpopulated are all contiguous to each other and all in the northeastern part of the state,” the Republican added.
The 10th district, currently represented by Rep. Donald Payne (D), needs to gain the most population: almost 100,000 new residents. But the Newark-based district has a majority minority population and because of the Voting Rights Act is unlikely to be eliminated. That leaves the potential of a Member-Member matchup between Democratic Reps. Bill Pascrell and Steve Rothman, who represent the 8th and 9th, respectively.
But Democrats don’t see a consolidation in the northeastern part of the state, which would likely create a map with six Democratic and six Republican districts, as the best way forward.
They see the potential for consolidating districts in northwestern New Jersey, where there are three Republican districts that need to gain substantial population. Those are represented by Reps. Scott Garrett, Leonard Lance and Rodney Frelinghuysen. That could leave all seven Democratic Members relatively safe while knocking the number of GOP Members in the delegation from six to five.
“You can make an argument that, based on past performance, New Jersey should have a seven-five Congressional delegation,” New Jersey Democratic State Committee Chairman John Wisniewski said, referring to a map with seven safe Democratic Members and five Republicans. He added that an even map, with six GOP seats and six Democratic seats, would not represent the will of the voters based on how they have historically voted.
One likely GOP goal for the redistricting process is to strengthen the 3rd district of freshman Rep. Jon Runyan (R), who won last year with only 50 percent of the vote. The district swung for Barack Obama by 5 points in the 2008 presidential election.
To gain Farmer’s vote, each side may put forth a map that draws a Democrat and a Republican together. One potential matchup floated by sources familiar with the redistricting process was the pairing of Rep. Rush Holt (D) and Lance, whose districts border each other.
Farmer, a self-described “eternal optimist,” said he hoped to help bring both sides to a consensus map despite the “very partisan environment.” But if that proves too steep a hill to climb, he said, “my goal is to get the parties as close to that kind of convergence as possible so that my choice becomes one between two very good and very fair maps that will withstand legal challenge.”
He said his first task in the process is to dive deep into the state’s census data, including examining how the population has changed.
“Once we have a really good picture of what the state looks like demographically and why it is we’re losing a seat, that will then drive the discussion,” Farmer said.
The commission is not constitutionally obligated to vote on a final map until January 2012. If the panel can’t come up with seven votes for a final map, the top two maps are sent to the state Supreme Court, which decides which one becomes law.
“What’s clear is we are going to go from 13 Members to a 12-Member delegation,” Wisniewski said. “There’s certainly no preordained outcome at this point.”