Legislative Redistricting and Swimming with the Sharks

Redistricting is like swimming with sharks.

2020 is a Presidential election year – does anyone really care? Let’s just put our 14 Electoral College votes in the Democratic column and move on. In New Jersey, we have a long-standing tradition of looking to the next election before the current one is over. In that vein, let’s look to the next big race – the race for redistricting.

I recently took a trip of a lifetime to Bora Bora with my wife to celebrate our 25th anniversary. During one of the more memorable maritime activities, I actually found myself swimming with dozens (literally dozens) of black tip reef sharks (and two lemon sharks) and naturally during this serene and beautiful moment this retired politico had thoughts of redistricting and the sharks that circle to end a political career.

Redistricting is spelled out in our Constitution (despite efforts to change it). Every decade each party (Chairman) appoints five members from his/her side to meet and attempt to work out a bipartisan map – good luck with that. With regard to legislative redistricting, I cannot think of a time when this ten-member board ever reached an agreement without the all-powerful 11th member – who is appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In the last redistricting, the Chief Justice asked for 3 names of a tiebreaker from each side in hopes of finding a compromise candidate – we agreed upon Alan Rosenthal.

Many incumbents spend countless hours staring at the legislative map in their district offices, tracking imaginary districts on scratch paper, discussing with their political teams what their potential future districts will look like. In performing this mental exercise, we always want to dump “problematic” towns or potential future rivals, pick up a town that increases our win margin, paves the way for an ambitious Assemblymember to ascend to the Senate or “retire” a nemesis.

I won’t bore you with the details of every meeting with a legislator, party leader, constituent group, political activist organization, or some random person who had an idea as they each come with their own myopic view of a district, county or region, never fully understanding the ramifications of every “just move that town over.”

During the 2011 Legislative Reapportionment process, I was one of the five GOP members selected to serve on the redistricting commission, and to prepare myself for this daunting task, I purchased the map-making software, flew to multiple NCSL conferences on redistricting and had my then chief of staff, Al Barlas, and friends, work for several hundred hours creating different scenarios – long before the first official meeting.

The official meetings start out cordial, but quickly devolve as blood is in the water and all the sharks start circling.

As everyone is huddled in their respective groups at the League discussing election results and redistricting, here are some things to keep in mind:

1) The all-important tiebreaker should be:

a. Someone who knows New Jersey;

b. Understands how our elections work;

c. Understands why the framers of our Constitution purposefully decided to have our elections held on non-federal election years;

d. Not just some academic who relies on a formula created by a green visor wearing mathematician;

e. Someone willing to engage both sides to come to a resolution;

f. Someone who (from the outset) will articulate the factors they deem important from a potential map – aside from what federal law requires (continuity of representation, compactness, how many competitive districts they want, a standard by which they determine competitiveness, communities of interest, etc.); and

g. Someone who understands that the more competitive districts – the better.

2) For every action there is a reaction. Translation: You can’t just move a town into your district or out of it – one shift will surely set off an avalanche of changes to the districts throughout the state. So, while getting rid of a town because of an overly ambitious mayor or councilmember may be your dream – dreams don’t always come true.

3) Start the process early. Start researching backgrounds of potential 11th members, and have a firm understanding of federal and state court rulings.

4) Don’t miss a meeting or be late as deals are proposed from all sides fast and furious.

5) For the good of your party, members should not be incumbent legislators. Sometimes, members have a hard time grasping “for the greater good” if it adversely impacts them. In my case, I was not happy, but to make a possible Republican map work “for the greater good,” I volunteered to put myself in districts against incumbent Senators Nia Gill and Dick Codey. As a matter of fact, the map the GOP submitted to the 11th member had me squaring off against long time Passaic County Senator, John Girgenti, who had over 400k in his election fund.

6) A fun fact: former Democratic State Chairman/Assemblyman John Wisniewski, in an apparent effort to make himself a Senator, moved his Senator, Joe Vitale, into a district that would have created a primary between Senator Vitale and then-Senator Barbara Buono. As soon as it was spotted, as the legend goes, Senator Vitale had a nice chat with Assemblyman Wisniewski and their lines were quickly realigned.

7) The last reapportionment commission did NOT live up to our expectations that the tiebreaker would forge a truly collaborative process to bring both sides together to create a fair map for the people of New Jersey. In the end, each party convened with the 11th member and his staff to make their arguments as to why their respective maps were better. To his credit, John Farmer tried to move the dial, but Alan Rosenthal (by way of his staff) would not budge. Truth be told, the GOP proposed map would have created 15 safe Democrat and Republican districts with 10 truly competitive districts.

In the humble opinion of this retired politico, instead of discussing what districts you would like to see during drinks at the B-Bar, you should be hoping Republicans and Democrats can come to a deal on a fair map, or that both sides can at least agree on a tie-breaker who will force compromise and consensus. Otherwise, the sharks will be out circling and the next race of substance you’ll be talking about is redistricting 2031.

Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Chairman Kevin O’Toole is a former 40th District Republican State Senator. 

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