Offered the chance, people speak up on legislative maps

COLLEEN O'DEA, SENIOR WRITER AND PROJECTS EDITOR | FEBRUARY 11, 2022 

NJ Spotlight News

Feb. 9, 2022: A virtual meeting to discuss proposed legislative district maps drew a wide array of individuals, including party activists, good-government advocates and people focused on their towns.

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Given the chance to weigh in on the major parties’ proposals for new legislative districts for the first time in history, New Jerseyans had a lot to say Wednesday.

They urged tweaks to allow them to keep their current representatives and they chided one party or the other for playing politics by moving their towns into a different district or boxing out their senators and Assembly members.

More than 150 people signed up to comment on the maps, named Turnpike and Parkway and submitted by Democrats and Republicans, respectively, so many that the New Jersey Legislative Apportionment Commission scheduled another hearing for Friday morning to give all those interested an opportunity to speak.

People were clearly happy to get a chance to comment on the maps under consideration. Typically, the Democratic or Republican members of the commission don’t agree on a map, leaving the choice to the nonpartisan 11th member. The result is a map to be in force for the next decade in legislative elections and the choice must be made by March 1.

The meeting drew a wide array of individuals, including party activists, good-government advocates and people focused on their towns. At least three lawmakers also watched, spoke or submitted written testimony, as well. Some of those who spoke hung on for the entire three hours that the meeting lasted. And some speakers said there were “watch parties” across the state for Wednesday’s virtual meeting.

Alternatives to party maps

Brad Van Arnum, who presented the commission with his own map two months ago, critiqued both parties’ plans and submitted a second plan, which he called a “compromise map” between the Democratic and Republican maps. He said his proposal would create more minority-majority districts, more competitive districts and “offers more civility” than either of the parties’ maps.

Some of those who spoke supported one map or the other, but more often, individuals were critical of certain aspects of one or both maps. The most common comments involved maps that split up “communities of interest,” areas that have common goals or needs, or that they split up minority populations, thus diluting the power of Asian, Hispanic, Black or other groups. Several Arab Americans, who are not counted as a distinct racial or ethnic group for redistricting purposes, urged that the next map recognizes their communities in Passaic, Hudson, Essex, Bergen, Middlesex and Monmouth counties.

“The Middle Eastern and Northern African community in Northern New Jersey is split among multiple districts; this will continue to disenfranchise my community,” said Raed Odeh, a Paterson business owner who sought changes in both the Parkway and Turnpike maps. He said 65% of the people living in a five-mile stretch from downtown Paterson to downtown Clifton and a similar percentage of the owners of businesses in that area have a Middle Eastern background. “We deserve more representation.”

A few other geographic areas drew several comments. These included Neptune, Red Bank and proposed changes to the 11th District currently represented by Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth) and two new Republicans in the  Assembly, the removal of Hillside from the 20th District in Union County, and Morris County districts.

The way the Democrats’  map would redraw boundaries would leave Morris County’s 26th District, long Republican but becoming more split, without an incumbent Assembly member by moving Republicans Jay Webber into the neighboring 25th District and newly elected Christian Barranco into the 24th. People argued on both sides of the move.

‘Chopping, slicing and dicing’

Bill Eames said the Turnpike map’s “chopping, slicing and dicing” of the 26th and other Morris County districts was done out of “vindictiveness” by the Democratic members of the committee. Karol Ruiz of the Wind of the Spirit immigrant center in Morristown said she and members of her organization “welcome primary challenges” to give them choices in electing representatives. Despite being a Democrat who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic Senate seat in the 26th District last year, Christine Clarke said she opposed how the party’s map would pit GOP incumbents against one another.

“Even though the partisan slant of the district is strong and led to the reelection of the current representatives, and even though I don’t personally agree with them on every issue, I don’t think it’s fair to voters to remove them by gerrymandering them out,” she said, adding that if they are to be unseated, it should be “through fair competition.”

Patricia Doherty of the grassroots organization NJ 11th for Change expressed the views of a number of other speakers in criticizing the partisan nature of the process.

“We are frustrated that these maps appear to be drawn as an exercise in political positioning, instead of recognizing the changing racial, ethnic and cultural communities of interest that we and many other groups have testified about as critical areas for consideration,” said Doherty, whose group had submitted its own map of the greater Morris and Essex area. “This was meant to be an opportunity for the commission and the public to collaborate to produce maps that would represent New Jersey fairly and responsibly. Instead, the hard work done by many concerned groups and individuals seems to have been disregarded.”

What happens next?

Last week, the commission’s tiebreaking member, former Superior Court Judge Philip Carchman, announced that each of the two major parties’ proposed maps would be posted online for the first time to allow people to comment on the plans before a final commission vote. That never happened before in either state or congressional redistricting. When new congressional district boundaries were voted on shortly before Christmas, the Democratic and Republican maps under consideration were not even available to those watching the meeting online until hours after that commission’s tiebreaker John Wallace, a former state Supreme Court justice, chose the Democrats’ plan.

Friday’s hearing is expected to be the last. Then each party’s delegation will make changes to its proposal. If the process continues as it has in the past, Carchman will meet with the delegations, perhaps asking for further revisions, and ultimately decide which map he prefers. The commission must approve new districts by March 1.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-02-11 03:23:41 -0800