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Essex County Democratic Chairman LeRoy Jones, Jr. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Democrats close to naming legislative redistricting commission members

Likely Currie picks — including Sweeney — will follow 2019 deal on state chairmanship

By David Wildstein, November 13 2020 4:55 pm

New Jersey Legislative Reapportionment Commission will follow the guidelines set in a deal over the Democratic state party chairmanship last year, with seats going to Hudson, Bergen, Essex, Middlesex and South Jersey, the New Jersey Globe has learned.

The five appointments are technically made by Democratic State Chairman John Currie, but aides to Gov. Phil Murphy agreed to split the commission last year as part of an accord that permitted Essex County Democratic Chairman LeRoy Jones, Jr. to drop his challenge to Currie.

Jones, a former assemblyman, will get one of the Democratic seats, along with Senate President Steve Sweeney, Middlesex County Democratic powerhouse Gary Taffet,  West New York Commissioner Cosmo Cirillo, and Fairview Borough Administrator Diane Testa.

Still, the list is not locked until Currie makes the final sign off – something that could push right up against the Sunday deadline.

Currie, multiple sources say, is strongly resisting the appointment of Sweeney.

The commission had originally been expected to redraw New Jersey’s 40 legislative districts in time for the 2021 general elections, but concerns over the timing of 2020 Census data slowed down during the coronavirus pandemic caused Democratic legislative leaders to postpone the process.

Voters approved a constitutional amendment last week that will allow the current map drawn in 2011 to remain in place for another two years if the U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t certify population numbers to the state by February 15.

It’s unlikely that the U.S. Census will meet that deadline.

Sweeney announced in April that he was taking the South Jersey seat himself.

“My appointment will honor the agreement we made to keep our New Jersey Democratic Party unified with a continued focus on increasing the number of Democratic elected officials throughout the state,” Sweeney wrote in a letter to Democratic State Chairman John Currie at the time.

Taffet, a former chief of staff to Gov. James E. McGreevey, is the choice of Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin.

His dual role will involve watching out for the Assembly Democratic Caucus and the political interests of Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Kevin McCabe.

Cirillo is a two-term West New York city commissioner, but his presence on the panel is entirely as the eyes and ears of Nicholas Sacco, the mayor of North Bergen and a State Senator from Hudson County.

The final seat will go to Fairview Borough Administrator Diane Testa, a close ally of Bergen County Democratic Chairman Paul Juliano.

Testa is the least-known reapportionment commission member in state politics, but her appointment makes Juliano the only Democrat to ensure a gender balance on the mapmaking panel.

Juliano had negotiated the seat for Bergen in October 2019 when he endorsed Currie’s re-election to another term a state chairman.

His agreement to pick a woman allowed Democrats to avoid the political pitfalls of an all-male redistricting commission.

There was a late push to convince Sacco to replace Cirillo with Assemblywoman Anjelica Jimenez (D-West New York), another Sacco ally who would increase the diversity of the redistricting commission.

Sacco, who backed Currie for the chairmanship and put Hudson County state committee votes in his column, is standing firm on his pick of Cirillo, sources with direct knowledge of the appointments told the NJ Globe.

Two other key state senators,  Judiciary Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden) and Budget and Appropriations Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge), are expected to play a significant role in legislative redistricting on the Democratic side, the NJ Globe has learned.

Jones spent nearly a year battling Currie for the post, but withdrew as part of an agreement that will allow him to ascend to the state chairmanship in June 2021.

The New Jersey Globe first reported that Jones, Sweeney, Taffet and Cirillo would get the posts more than seven months ago.  The Globe had initially identified Juliano or former Paramus Councilman Joseph Garcia as possible Bergen picks.

GOP State Chairman Doug Steinhardt picked the five Republican commissioners in April, tapping Essex County GOP Chairman Al Barlas as the chairman,

Steinhardt also named Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean, Jr., Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, former Republican State Chairman Michael Lavery, and Salem County Republican Chair Linda DuBois.

Kean is currently locked in a tight congressional race in New Jersey’s 7th district against Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes).  If he wins, he is expected to give up his legislative redistricting seat and Steinhardt would designate a replacement.

The composition of the redistricting committee is likely to attract some criticism for those who don’t view it as diverse enough.

The commission has eight men and two women, Testa and DuBois.  Jones is the lone Black member and Barlas is the only Muslim and South Asian, with no Hispanic representation on the panel that will draw the next legislative map.

Murphy aides had been pushing for greater diversity on the commission.

One New Jersey political organization, Latinas United for Political Empowerment (LUPE), wrote to Currie this week urging him to choose a Latina for one of the five Democratic seats.

“In the last decade, the Latinx population in New Jersey has seen the highest growth and expansion into all counties in our state, and as such, our voices must be part of the decision-making that determines political access for our community in the next decade,” said LUPE president Patricia Campos-Medina and Lara Matos, the president of the LUPE PAC.  “Representation matters.”

Campos-Medina reminded Currie that the redistricting commission had Latina representation for the last two maps – Sonia Delgado in 2001 and State Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez in 2011 – although no threats were made that might deny Murphy support from the group when he seeks re-election next year.

“Representation must be maintained, if not increased, this year, Campos and Matos said. “We must not regress now.”

There is no representation from progressive leaders on the Democratic side.

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