N.J. political attention turns to legislative races

Posted: November 07, 2010

With the national midterm elections fading away, New Jersey's political class is turning its attention to the battle of the Statehouse.

Gov. Christie will have a chance to build a more malleable Legislature in 2011, because all 120 senators and Assembly members will be up for election.

Democrats, on the other hand, could halt the blunt-talking Republican governor's political momentum by holding - or building on - their majorities in both houses.

Christie supporters already have given Democrats a taste of what's ahead.

In the summer, when the governor and Democrats were spatting over a constitutional amendment to create a property-tax cap, a pro-Christie shadow group with a secret donor list mailed fliers into House Speaker Sheila Oliver's Essex County district and Senate President Stephen Sweeney's Gloucester County district. The fliers, sponsored by Reform Jersey Now, asked voters to pressure the legislative leaders into scheduling a vote.

"If that is what we experienced on something as simple as a bill, that was an indication to me to what length this governor and his Reform New Jersey apparatus will go to," Oliver said. "I think they will invest that same level of energy in the elections."

Christie has battled with the Senate and Assembly over finances, women's health issues, and a tax on wealthy individuals. Through most of those battles - cutting money for women's health services was an exception - Republican legislators have been a bloc of support for the governor.

And, often, Christie has gotten his way with Democrats on issues such as the budget, property taxes, and pensions. But he has had to compromise. He got a lowered municipal budget cap, but he didn't get that constitutional amendment.

After newly elected Democrat Linda Greenstein is sworn in to fill an unexpired Senate term, there will be 24 Democrats and 16 Republicans in the Senate, and 47 Democrats and 33 Republicans in the Assembly.

The first step to winning the legislative races will be redrawing the 40 districts in which voters select one senator and two Assembly members. The districts are drawn every decade based on new U.S. Census Bureau figures.

"The map is going to define a lot of the races," said Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Cryan (D., Union).

That is because maps can be drawn to give one party an advantage.

"Most districts overwhelmingly favor one party or another," Rider University political scientist Ben Dworkin said. That leaves a handful that may be competitive.

"There will be more competitive races," predicted Republican State Committee Chairman Jay Webber, a Morris County assemblyman. "It's hard to imagine there being fewer."

Ultimately, all members will be running in somewhat different districts, which would have roughly 217,000 people in them.

The Apportionment Commission will begin its work in earnest in January, when the census figures are released.

Each party has five members on the commission. The 11th member, who serves as a tiebreaker, is selected by the commission or the state's chief justice.

The work must be completed by April.

"My primary focus is on a map that is both fair and constitutional," said Senate Minority Leader Thomas H. Kean Jr. (R., Union).

For years, Republicans have complained that districts were drawn to help Democrats. But one analyst pointed out that immediately after districts were redrawn in 2001, voters elected an evenly split state Senate: 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans.

As the political map drawers get to work, both parties will be thinking about Tuesday's election, when Republicans swept through Bergen County and picked up freeholder seats in Gloucester and Cumberland Counties.

Democrats, however, won the Senate race in the 14th Legislative District, which covers parts of Mercer and Middlesex Counties and had been represented by Republicans for 20 years. In U.S. House races, Republican Jon Runyan took a seat away from freshman Rep. John Adler, a Democrat, in a traditionally Republican district in South Jersey.

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

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