N.J.'s new congressional map gives edge to GOP

Posted: December 24, 2011

Republicans, who lost out in New Jersey's legislative redistricting battle earlier this year, came out on top with the new congressional map revealed Friday.

A bipartisan committee charged with axing one of New Jersey's 13 congressional districts decided to push a Democratic congressman into a Republican-leaning district.

Unlike most states, New Jersey uses a committee to redraw legislative and congressional district boundaries every 10 years when the U.S. Census Bureau releases updated population figures. New Jersey grew at a slower rate than other states, so it lost one seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The tie-breaking 13th member of the committee, John J. Farmer Jr., chose the Republican proposal, which was approved Friday with a 7-6 committee vote in Trenton.

U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman, a liberal Democrat who represents parts of Hudson, Passaic, and Essex Counties, took the hardest hit. His hometown of Fair Lawn was merged into the Republican-leaning Fifth District represented by Rep. Scott Garrett, a Republican and the state's most conservative member of the U.S. House. The rest of Rothman's district was siphoned off to Rep. Bill Pascrell, a Democrat.

Democrats also lost a fight in South Jersey. The revised map removes Cherry Hill, a Democratic-leaning township, from the Third District represented by freshman Rep. Jon Runyan, a Republican.

Democrats on the committee scoffed at the Republican argument that Runyan's district remains competitive without Cherry Hill, which was moved to the already strongly Democratic district represented by Rep. Rob Andrews, a Democrat.

"The notion that District Three is a competitive district is frankly a work of fiction," said former Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr., who led the Democrats on the board. "It is less competitive than the current district."

But Farmer, the dean of Rutgers Law School in Newark and a former state attorney general, said the map was a genuine compromise between the two parties.

"I have exasperated all my colleagues at this table in an effort to drive compromise and bring both parties together," Farmer said at Friday's hearing in Trenton.

Rothman, first elected to Congress in 1996, said he would announce his plans soon. If he does not run against Garrett, he could move to Pascrell's district (where voters already know him) and challenge Pascrell in a primary.

"I am looking at all my options as a result of the new map," he said in a statement.

Garrett could not be immediately reached for comment.

Roberts said he was not sure yet whether Democrats or other interested parties, such as minority coalitions, would challenge the map in court.

Farmer said he believed the new map was better than the previous one in almost every way. It splits only 14 municipalities between districts, and none of them more than once. The prior map split 29 municipalities, with two of them represented by three representatives.

The map also preserves two minority voting blocs and creates opportunities for minority candidates in two other districts. It does not "strain geography" to accomplish its goals, and the districts are more compact, Farmer said.

Democrats tried to delay the final vote, arguing that the public had no opportunity to review the new map, which, by state law, does not have to be adopted until Jan. 17. Several Democrats also criticized the new boundaries, saying they split some minority populations, including an Asian voting bloc in Bergen County.

"Our deadline is not today," Roberts said. "Our deadline is 31/2 weeks from today."

But Republicans said Democrats were simply stalling.

Michael DuHaime, an adviser to Gov. Christie who led the Republican committee members, said Democrats did not complain about the timeline until Friday morning, when Farmer called the commissioners to say he had chosen the GOP plan.

"I don't understand why we would not follow the process that we agreed to other than the fact that your map hasn't been selected," DuHaime said in response to Roberts.

The two maps were not so different. After sequestering themselves for a week at the Heldrich Hotel in New Brunswick, both parties offered maps Thursday that would pit Garrett against Rothman. But Democrats wanted a 50-50 voter registration divide in the combined district, according to Democrats.

Farmer, for his part, said his first inclination was to combine two Democratic districts - that of Rothman and the neighboring district represented by Pascrell, which stretches over parts of Passaic and Essex Counties.

"The Democrats changed my mind," he said. "Speaker Roberts made a compelling argument that allowing the voters to decide whose party loses a seat is fair."

But Roberts said the new map does not give Rothman a "fair fight." Garrett may have a four-point advantage if Rothman faces him next fall, Democratic sources said.

Democrats hold seven of the state's U.S. House seats, while Republicans hold six.

If Garrett defeats Rothman and the other incumbents are reelected in 2012, New Jersey would have an even six-six split in its U.S. House delegation.

The new map will remain in effect until 2021.

When the state's legislative districts were remapped in April, the tiebreaker on that committee, Alan Rosenthal, approved the Democratic map, which largely protected Democrats, who hold majorities in the both chambers in Trenton.


Contact staff writer Joelle Farrell at 856-779-3237, jfarrell@phillynews.com, or @joellefarrell on Twitter.

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