Seat at stake in redistricting

Burlington County Times (Willingboro, NJ) - Sunday, December 18, 2011
Author: David Levinsky, Staff writer
One of New Jersey's 13 congressmen is going to have an unhappy new year. 

That's because one of them is sure to be out of a job by the end of 2012 due to New Jersey's loss of one of its seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, which will force one of the 13 to either retire or face a fellow incumbent in a primary or the general election. Deciding which two districts will be merged will fall to the New Jersey Congressional Redistricting Commission, a bipartisan group made up of six Republicans, six Democrats and one independent tiebreaker. 

The commission is created every decade after the census to redraw the congressional boundaries to reflect population changes. 

Usually the task is undertaken with an eye toward protecting incumbents. But the loss of a seat has created much higher stakes. 

Although the commission has until Jan. 17 to submit a new map, Rutgers Law School Dean John Farmer Jr., who is the impartial tiebreaking member, has said he hopes the commission can unveil a finished map by the end of the week. 

Speculation about what the end result will look like has grown among political watchers, but Farmer and other commission members have said little except that two districts will be merged and that the 11 remaining will also change. 

Burlington County is divided among four congressional districts. Republican Jon Runyan's 3rd District encompasses the largest portion as well as a large swath of Ocean County and Cherry Hill in Camden County. 

The other congressmen representing parts of the county are Democrat Rob Andrews in the 1st District, and Republicans Chris Smith in the 4th District and Frank LoBiondo in the 2nd. 

None of those four are likely to be merged with another because South Jersey's population greatly outgrew the north, where some areas actually lost population. 

Dan Douglas, director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, said that the South Jersey districts would "probably shift a little" but that no drastic changes were expected, unlike in North Jersey, where the merger will likely occur. 

"The big choice will be up north, particularly in the northeast," Douglas said. 

Just because the changes will be smaller doesn't mean South Jersey won't have important stakes in the redistricting effort. 

Douglas said both political parties will be looking to add towns that favor their incumbent or challenger's chances, particularly in Runyan's 3rd District, which has proved to be a battleground during the last two congressional races. 

The final 3rd District boundaries might also impact the field of Democratic challengers interested in running against the former Philadelphia Eagles lineman. 

"Runyan's is the big question mark, because he's the first-termer, which means he's more vulnerable," Douglas said. 

Democrat John Adler won the seat in 2008 after popular GOP incumbent Jim Saxton retired. Adler narrowly beat former Medford Mayor Chris Myers to become the first Democrat in more than a century to represent the district. 

Adler was unseated last year by Runyan in another close, expensive contest, but the Democrats are expected to target the seat again next year. 

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already spent thousands of dollars on advertising and communications attacking Runyan for some of his votes during his first term. 

Whom the Democrats will run against Runyan is still undecided, according to party insiders, who say a decision will likely be made shortly after the redistricting commission completes its work. 

Adler was preparing to run for the seat again before he unexpectedly died in April from complications stemming from a heart infection. He was 51. 

No obvious candidate has emerged since Adler's death, and only one - Medford doctor Tom Sacks-Wilner - has so far surfaced as even being interested in challenging Runyan. 

Sacks-Wilner could not be reached for comment Friday, but party members have said a more well-known Democrat could be selected depending on how the district boundaries are redrawn. 

For example, if the 3rd District expands to the south and Voorhees, Camden County, is added, state Sen. James Beach and Assemblyman Lou Greenwald could run against Runyan. 

"Lots of folks are poking around, but they're waiting until the district is set," Douglas said. "It could depend on one town or another being moved in or out of it." 

There is less intrigue about redistricting in Andrews', Smith's and LoBiondo's districts, which have proved to be extremely safe territory for the three incumbents. 

Andrews' 1st District includes Riverton, Palmyra and Maple Shade in Burlington County as well as most of Camden and Gloucester counties, but some speculate it could be expanded to include more of Burlington County or all or part of Cherry Hill. 

Smith's 4th District includes most of northern Burlington County and parts of Monmouth, Mercer and Ocean counties, but speculation is that it could lose much or all of its Burlington County territory to Runyan's 3rd District. 

LoBiondo's 2nd District, which stretches from Cape May into Shamong and Washington in Burlington County, could be expanded to include more of the Ocean County territory now in the 3rd. But it's likely to change the least of the four South Jersey districts because so much of it is along the coast. 

"You can't push him into the ocean," Douglas said. 

Haggling over the borders will start Monday, when the commission begins holding private negotiations at a New Brunswick hotel. 

Former Burlington County Freeholder Aubrey Fenton, who is one of the Republicans serving on the commission, said Friday that the process has been collaborative and cordial, and he expected that to continue next week. 

"Everyone has listened and worked well together. It's been a joy to serve," Fenton said Friday. 

He said he had no apprehensions about the final outcome of the redistricting effort and its possible impact on incumbents' careers or party fortunes. 

"It's been a fair process and an open process, which is what's most important," he said.