New Jersey gears up for a redistricting battle

With a $1.1 million budget, a lineup of powerful politicians, and a couple of rock stars from the arcane world of reapportionment, New Jersey's major parties are in the thick of a delicate operation: redrawing the state's 40 legislative districts.

Ultimately, the winner of this mostly backroom skull session will be one of the major parties, and the new map will influence the partisan balance of the Senate and Assembly for the rest of the decade.

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Each of the 40 districts elects one senator and two Assembly members. Depending on how Democratic and Republican voters are spaced throughout the districts, one party can have an advantage in racking up members. If more legislative districts lean Republican, for example, the GOP could capture majorities in the Legislature.

Currently, Democrats control the Senate, 24-16, and the Assembly, 47-33.

Democrats won the redistricting battle in 2001. They were able to split the state's two largest cities, Newark and Jersey City, both heavily Democratic, into three districts apiece. This time, because of a recent court decision, they have agreed to split Newark and Jersey City into only two districts.

Republicans won reapportionment in 1991 and soon took over the Legislature, helped by voter discontent with Democratic Gov. Jim Florio's tax increases.

Now in 2011, the parties are already poking each other. They are choosing their words carefully because they know that soon a full-fledged legal conflict will burst out and they will use those words in court against each other.

So it's a little tense.

The Apportionment Commission is composed of five Democrats and five Republicans and includes Democratic State Chairman John S. Wisniewski, who is a Middlesex County assemblyman, and former Republican Chairman Jay Webber, who is a Morris County assemblyman.

They agree on one matter: that they won't split Newark and Jersey City into three districts each. They disagree on another: when to appoint a tiebreaker. And each side is implying that the other isn't terribly interested in public input.

Wisniewski criticized Republicans for declining to appoint an independent moderator to run hearings to give the public an opportunity to state its case. Webber said Democrats wanted to rush through the hearing process.

The public, though, is interested in having its say.

Phil Warner, southern regional coordinator of the state NAACP, is part of a coalition of African American, Latino, and civic groups. He said they planned to come up with their own legislative map.

Sometimes when districts are redrawn, minority groups are crammed into already safe Democratic districts, giving them less influence on races in neighboring districts and costing them power in statehouses, Warner said.

"We're going to look at any attempt to water down our votes by either party," he said.

A tea-party group in North Jersey is proposing a map that could create a showdown between Republican State Sen. Kevin O'Toole and Democratic State Sen. Richard Codey in a redrawn Essex County district.

The commission held initial public hearings Saturday in Camden and Toms River but has yet to agree on a full schedule of hearings. The new district maps have to be set before late April, when candidates file to run.

As the deadline nears, both parties have retained high-powered Washington law firms.

The Republicans hired Benjamin Ginsberg of Patton Boggs, who was counsel to former President George W. Bush's campaigns, famously helping Bush in the Florida vote recount in 2000. In 2004, Ginsberg gave legal advice on campaign finance to a political group that sponsored the Swift Boat television ads questioning Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's war record.

Ginsberg is a veteran of redistricting battles and a former reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin.

On the Democratic side is Paul Smith of Jenner & Block. He has written extensively on redistricting, has argued more than a dozen cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, and has led court battles on redistricting and voting rights around the country for almost 20 years.

These men are likely to face each other when the court fight breaks out.

Each side has $500,000 of that $1.1 million in state funding, and $100,000 is set aside for an 11th member, who would serve as a tiebreaker.

Republicans, though, have a pot of money to cover legal and mapmaking expenses coming to them from the Center for a Better New Jersey, a nonprofit group that does not have to disclose its donors. The group was founded in 2009 by Senate Minority Leader Thomas H. Kean Jr., of Union County, and Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce, of Morris County, according to Kean, the group's spokesman.

Kean said the group would follow the laws governing it, which means it will not disclose its donors.

Both sides have their own map makers and numbers crunchers and are waiting for final U.S. Census data, which should be tabulated within a week or so.

Based on estimates, the political parties believe each new district will have about 220,000 voters. Every seat is up for election this year.

The state's population has increased from about 8.4 million to 8.8 million, with most of the growth in South Jersey, particularly Ocean and Gloucester Counties, and the northwestern part of the state.

Republicans have argued that raw general-election vote totals show they should have more legislative seats than they do now.

Democrats argue that New Jersey remains a strong blue state and has swung for Democratic presidential and U.S. Senate candidates for years.

"Our job is to draw a fair and constitutional map," said Webber, who left his job as party chairman to concentrate on reapportionment, indicating its importance to the party and Gov. Christie.

 


Contact staff writer Cynthia Burton at 856-779-3858 or cburton@phillynews.com.