Record, The (Hackensack, NJ) - Thursday, November 3, 2011

Meager population growth in North Jersey during the past decade will make the tough job of eliminating one of the state's 13 congressional districts even tougher, according to the redistricting commission's non-partisan chairman. 

"The real dilemma that's posed by this map is not just that we're losing a seat, which we are, but that ... the districts that have to add the most people are all in the same area, they're all up north," John Farmer Jr. said last week between meetings with the congressional delegation on Capitol Hill. 

The loss of a district means every representative has to pick up new territory. And, unless someone quits, two incumbents will have to face each other, either in the June primary or the November general election. 

Republicans would prefer a battle between two Democrats, and vice versa. Farmer provided no clues about who the odd man out would be, or how he plans to work with the six Democrats and six Republicans on the commission to decide on a map over the next two months. 

"The goal would be to drive agreement on a single map that would get bipartisan support. How I would go about doing that, I haven't decided yet," said Farmer, the dean of Rutgers Law School in Newark and former state attorney general. 

In recent weeks, law students have been preparing analyses of the state's 13 districts and the legal issues involved in redistricting. Farmer plans to digest their reports before deciding if he'll put his own map out for the commission members to review, or if he'll lay down criteria and invite the two sides to offer competing plans from which he could choose. 

Ten years ago, the members of the congressional delegation had agreed among themselves to a map that the commission made only minor changes to, said Alan Rosenthal, a Rutgers University political science professor who served as the congressional tiebreaker in 1991 and 2001 and as the legislative tiebreaker this year. 

"In 1991, both the Democrats and the Republicans on the commission were in total agreement that Bob Roe, an incumbent and chairman of the House committee on transportation that delivered projects to New Jersey, had to be protected because his district was losing population and had to be shored up," Rosenthal said. 

This year, Rosenthal said he hoped to build some bipartisan consensus on the legislative commission but, "They wouldn't talk to one another, let alone negotiate." 

The 2010 census showed that the district represented by Donald Payne, D-Newark, needs to add more than 98,000 people, the most in the state. Next highest is Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-Paterson, who needs 72,000, followed by Steve Rothman, D-Fair Lawn, 71,000; and Scott Garrett, R-Wantage, 66,000. 

Those numbers would indicate that there should be one less district in North Jersey next year, but politics and legal precedent drive redistricting as much as population data. So it's also possible that North Jersey lawmakers will just pick up constituents from the central part of the state, and the eliminated district would come from there. 

Minorities protected 

Court rulings and Voting Rights Act provisions that protect minority representation make it likely that there will continue to be districts dominated by African-Americans and Latinos. That protects the seats of Payne, who is black, and Cuban-born Rep. Albio Sires, D-West New York. 

But a broad array of criteria will drive the work of the commission on drawing the rest of the map. Farmer is not saying yet how important it will be, for example, that senior members with powerful committee spots be protected, that more districts be created that are truly competitive between the two parties, or that minority groups have a greater ability to influence elections. 

At a recent public hearing, for example, an attorney testified that the growing Asian population in New Jersey is splintered among several districts. 

"One of the things I have students doing is identifying all the communities of interest and the extent to which they're split up and the extent to which we might, in redrawing the map, capture communities of interest that are now split," Farmer said. 

He also said he's heard complaints about splitting people on the same street in some towns into different districts. 

"You don't want people confused about who's representing them, but I think a lot of those decisions are driven by the requirements that districts honor one-person, one-vote," he said, referring in shorthand to court rulings that said districts need to be nearly equal in size. 

"That requires, or has required in the past, some splitting of municipal boundaries. We hope to keep that to a minimum, but I can't make any representation we'll be able to do that," Farmer said. 

The 'I' factor 

A big question is how to handle the partisan political balance of the delegation, which is currently split 7-6 with Democrats in the majority. Democrats argue they should continue to have the majority because of the state's traditional political leanings. Republicans argue that election results over the past decade show more votes were cast for Republican candidates when the total vote in districts is combined. 

"I haven't come down on that question yet," Farmer said. "But I think if you look at New Jersey's history, I'm an independent, and that's what we really are. More than half the voters are independent, and we have been Republican at times and Democratic at times," he said. 

Patrick Murray, the polling director at Monmouth University, said New Jersey's electorate is more complicated than that. It's true that the number of voters who are not declared members of either party outnumber the registered Democrats and Republicans, but Murray said New Jersey is a "lean-Democratic state that is willing to vote for moderate Republican candidates." 

The reason more people don't sign up with either party, he said, is that party leaders try as hard as they can to keep districts lopsided so there's no real contests that would attract turnout. He noted Democratic registration surged in February 2008, for example, when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were battling for the presidential nomination in the state's primary. 

"It's our lack of competitive elections that has led to this erroneous 'independent' analysis. My hope is that [Farmer's] actions won't give us yet another map that will perpetuate this," Murray said.