A controversial plan to change the way legislative districts would be drawn after the 2020 census was pulled by Senate and Assembly leaders tonight, eliminating the possibility that a proposed constitutional amendment would be considered by New Jersey voters next November.
Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said the legislature would not vote on the issue when both houses meet on Monday. The two issued statements at the same time.
The retreat is a win for Gov. Phil Murphy, who led the opposition to a proposal that some say would essentially make gerrymandering a constitutional requirement in New Jersey.
It’s also a big win for progressive grassroots organizations, whose intense opposition to redistricting helped force legislative leaders to cave.
Democrats in New Jersey were on the verge of a split over the issue, with more than fifty progressive groups and academics voicing strong opposition to the plan. Stories about New Jersey redistricting began to receive national attention, with former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the New York Times editorial board strongly opposing the idea.
The plan also sought to change the way the independent redistricting commission members were picked. The current law gives the two state party chairman all five appointments. Democratic State Chairman John Currie is a Murphy ally, something that essentially would give the governor control over the new legislative districts in 2021.
The plan would have reduced Currie’s picks from five to two and given the four legislative leaders two appointments each.
Now Murphy controls the Democratic side of redistricting, unless the other faction of the New Jersey Democratic party can depose Currie when he faces re-election next year.
Sweeney was struggling to get the votes to pass the resolution on Monday and his withdrawal from the fight marks the first legislative victory for Murphy, who has struggled to get along with the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
Democrats have a 25-15 majority in the Senate and Sweeney could afford to lose no more than four. Three Democrats – Richard Codey (D-Roseland, Nicholas Sacco (D-North Bergen) and Brian Stack (D-Union City) – announced this week that they would oppose the redistricting plan.
State Sen. Nia Gill (D-Montclair) was widely expected to vote no, although she had not announced her intentions. State Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Lawrence) had also not said how she planned to vote.
One Democratic senator under immense pressure to vote against the plan was Nellie Pou (D-North Haledon), who represents Passaic County, where Currie is also the Democratic county chairman. A yes vote would have put her already tenuous political career in jeopardy.
Sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that Pou had promised Currie that she would oppose the measure but faced enormous pressure from Sweeney to change her mind.
Today, a Hudson County Democratic leader, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that Senate Deputy Majority Leader Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City was wavering on her expected support amidst intense local opposition to the redistricting plan. Cunningham is a member of Sweeney’s leadership team but was being pushed to buck the Senate President by party leaders and elected officials in Jersey City and Bayonne, which make up her own district.
Sweeney has a strong alliance with six Republican senators, but on this one issue there was no support from the GOP. Passage of the constitutional amendment would have effectively made the Republicans a permanent minority in Trenton.
Republican State Chairman Douglas Steinhardt had helped lead the fight against the redistricting plan.
“A handful of politicians have demonstrated an alarming willingness to forsake the delicate fabric of the state’s democracy by advancing a redistricting amendment that benefits them and them alone,” Steinhardt wrote in an e-mail this morning. “I am even joined by Democratic leaders from around the country, who share our view. ”
Two legislative sources who asked not to be identified said that Coughlin did not want to have this fight.
Some Democrats had worried that the extraordinary number of progressive groups that had opposed the redistricting plan could prompt some primaries for Assembly incumbents next June.
Still, according to sources, it was Coughlin that had the 41 votes to pass the initiative in the Assembly, while Sweeney did not have 21 Senate votes locked in.
The plan is not dead, though. The Legislature could still vote to put the constitutional amendment on the ballot for the 2020 general election if they approve it in both 2019 and 2020.
“While we continue to recognize the importance of improving the legislative redistricting process, we will not be moving forward with the proposed ballot resolution on Monday,” Sweeney said in his statement. “This will give us the time and opportunity to review the input we have received from the public, our legislative colleagues and others to determine if any of these ideas would improve the proposal.
Sweeney said he recognizes the importance of the issue.
“Redistricting provides the foundation for the democratic process and it gives voice to voters. We will maintain an open mind as we continue to work on a proposal that best serves the electoral process and the values of our democracy,” said Sweeney.
Coughlin pointed to Senate and Assembly public hearings on the issue this week, where no individual or group testified in support of the redistricting plan.
“I want to integrate some of the valuable input received to help create a better measure and improve the redistricting process overall,” Coughlin said.
The speaker says he remains “committed to strengthening our electoral process.”
Murphy commended the legislative leadership for their decision to pull the proposal from consideration at Monday’s voting session.
“ I’m grateful they heard the voices of so many within New Jersey and around the country who saw that the proposal would have made our Legislature less representative and less accountable,” Murphy said. “I thank the many residents and grassroots organizations, on both sides of the aisle, who stood up to make their voices heard and whose activism resulted in the decision to pull this measure. We have serious challenges facing our state, and now we can get to them together without distraction.”
Steinhardt said Republicans viewed the redistricting constitution amendment as bigger than partisan politics.
“We saw that when leaders from both sides of the political aisle and groups from around the state came together, like the NAACP and League of Women Voters, to oppose this measure. It’s withdrawal is a win for the New Jersey’s 9 million residents and the foundation on which our democracy is built,” Steinhardt said. “Hopefully, now, we can get on with the business of making New Jersey advance the bi-partisan, good-government momentum that this issue forced, arriving at a more transparent redistricting process that reflects New Jersey’s diverse makeup and promotes a truly competitive legislative map that fairly represents all of us. This truly was a success in putting people before party politics.”
Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean, Jr. called the Democratic leadership retreat a “big win for New Jersey.”
“The proposed redistricting amendment would have disenfranchised millions of voters, taking away one of the most important rights we have as Americans: the power to choose who represents us in the halls of government,” Kean said. “This shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Gerrymandering is wrong. We will remain vigilant, and fight back against any redistricting proposal that betrays democracy.”
Kean kept the door open for some tinkering to the current system of drawing legislative districts.
“I hope that this time, the sponsors will work with nonpartisan election experts and legislators on both sides of the aisle, so we can craft a redistricting proposal that we can all be proud of. The people we have the privilege of serving deserve no less than an amendment that ensures fair and equal representation for all,” said Kean.
Analilia Mejia, the executive director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, said that “when we fight, we win.”
“There is tremendous power when voters are engaged and informed. Senate and Assembly leadership attempted to silently move a drastic proposal many understood to be detrimental to New Jersey’s democracy,” Mejia said. “Legislative leadership’s withdrawal at the face of an informed, engaged, and active public proves that government works best with the full engagement and knowledge of the people.”
This story was updated at 7:43 PM to include comment from Murphy, at 7:53 PM to include comment from Steinhardt, at 8:14 PM to include comment from Kean, and at 8:51 PM to include comment from Mejia.