When it comes to public interest mapmaking, Amy Torres doesn’t like the idea of being categorized as
simply progressive. The executive director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice wants “fair representation,” which corresponds to no political designation or agenda.
New Jersey (pop. 9,288,994) is one of just eight states (including the District of Columbia) nationwide with a diversity index above 65%. In New Jersey, non-Hispanic whites clock in at 51.9% of the population – down from 59.3% in 2010. Just 31 of New Jersey’s 40 state senators are white; 56 of the state’s 80 assembly people are white. The 2020 national diversity index in the U.S. came in below New Jersey’s, at 61.1 percent, up from 54.9 percent recorded in 2010.
Now in the throes of legislative redistricting on the same week that Democratic and Republican commissioners presented their maps for consideration by a neutral tiebreaker, Torres and other coalition advocates of “their own unity map,” argue that in light of census data, 20 out of New Jersey’s 40 legislative districts should properly reflect the influence of communities of color.
The two party redistricting maps submitted on Monday for public inspection allow for 17 – not 20 – so-called “majority minority” districts. In fairness, that’s not enough, says Torres and her allies.
“New Jersey’s growing in diversity and that needs to be fairly represented,” said said, noting that mapmakers can draw the districts many ways to get to a more equitable 20 than the bipartisan commission’s 17.
Like Torres, Charlene Walker, executive director of Faith in New Jersey, testified before the New Jersey Legislative Apportionment Commission this week.
“We want an even split,” Walker said, pointing to the non-white population acceleration in New Jersey over the last ten years.
In addition, she said a final map should have at least four Latino-dominant districts with accompanying reflective representation in the state senate. At present, Democrats offer two on their map, and Republicans offer six.
“It is important to keep communities of interest together,” Walker told InsiderNJ this week following her testimony to the commission. “If you don’t, and two communities are experiencing a crisis, flooding, for example, and they separated, their voices dwindle, and can’t express themselves as effectively.”
She applauded the fact that one of the maps appears to take pains to keep the Native American community of Northern New Jersey together in one legislative district.
But the commission has significant work to do to get closer to the aims of her coalition.
Walker, like Torres and others, acknowledges that the commission backs into some public interest issues, almost as an afterthought, noting that the two parties oversee the process “Not really for the people” but for the purposes of political power.
Patricia Campos-Medina, veteran activist, political leader and executive director at the Worker Institute,
also refuses to see fewer than 20 minority-majority districts as acceptable. She wants more Latino districts, too.
“We have real concerns over the [Democratic Party] map that came out, regarding where Latinos can have more opportunity,” said Campos-Medina.
She would like to see another Passaic-Bergen district forged to reflect Latino population growth, and another Middlesex-Mercer or southern Somerset district created with the same goal.
While the women activists all decry the conditions of New Jersey redistricting mapmaking, noting the danger of having the two parties installed to protect themselves – a situation very nearly unique to New Jersey – they see some movement in the right direction.
“The maps don’t adequately address minority groups, when you consider their growth, which has just been enormous,” said Torres. “This commission is a political commission, which is certainly not the process a majority of states want to adopt. New Jersey is the only state that has a political commission for congressional redistricting.
“We have attempted to reform the process with active pushing for transparency, but because this is the process, these maps need to be better for people of color, who are half the state,” she added.
The fact that the two party’s publicly released their map drafts this week was a win, Torres said; a small win, but a win nonetheless.
“They have been receptive to public feedback,” she said.
Still, a battle victory on the transparency front could get swallowed up in a war loss when it comes to the prioritized goal of greater representation for communities of color.
If the commission fails to adjust the maps submitted to fairly reflect the growth of minority populations in New Jersey, the state will not look back on 2021(2) redistricting as a success, Torres argued.
The following are the names of those organizations joined in support of the unity map:
Fair Share Housing Center; Latino Action Network; Latino Coalition of New Jersey; League of Women Voters of New Jersey; Latinas United for Political Empowerment (L.U.P.E.) Fund; NAACP State Conference; the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice; New Jersey Institute for Social Justice; New Jersey League of Conservation Voters; New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center; New Jersey Working Families; the Palestinian American Community Center; Salvation and Social Justice and Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund.