Home>Congress>Congressional redistricting makes for strange bedfellows

Under both the old and the new congressional map, parts of the Jersey Shore will be linked with Edison and other diverse towns in Middlesex County. (Photo: Shinya Suzuki).

Congressional redistricting makes for strange bedfellows

By Joey Fox, January 27 2022 9:45 am

New Jersey’s congressional map for 2022-2031. (Photo: AveryTheComrade via Wikipedia).

In a perfect world, congressional redistricting would be a piece of cake. States would be neatly divided into properly sized communities of interest; geography would allow for contiguous, compact districts; and the political parties would agree to relinquish partisan advantage and draw the best overall map possible.

We don’t live in a perfect world. Sometimes a clearly defined community is too big or too small for one district; sometimes geography forces together two parts of the state that don’t have anything in common; and sometimes the term “community of interest” is itself used to justify gerrymandering or warped to fit a political agenda.

All of those factors and more were at play in the congressional map that was drawn by Democratic commissioners and approved last month, which preserves some communities as well as making some head-scratching choices that help protect the Democratic Party’s dominance in the state.

Below are six of the oddest combinations of towns under the new congressional lines, ones which strain the definition of “communities of interest” to its breaking point and lay bare how complex congressional redistricting can be.

Linden and Hackettstown (7th district)

Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden) and Assembly Minority Leader John DiMaio (R-Hackettstown) could be forgiven for not expecting their hometowns to be combined under the new congressional map. After all, Linden is a diverse, urban town bordering New York City, while Hackettstown is far off in the rural environs of the Lehigh Valley.

But combined they were into the new 7th district, and now they’ll both be subjected to intense campaigning in what may be New Jersey’s only highly competitive district in 2022.

The 7th district has long been an oddly shaped district, and its previous iteration still combined incongruous parts of Union and Warren Counties, two parts of the state that have very little in common. Thanks to political considerations, however – Democrats appear to have made the district redder to appease Republicans and tiebreaker John Wallace, but not red enough to doom Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes) – the district stretched its odd boundaries even further.

Scutari lives in the portion of Linden that’s still in the 10th district, so he won’t personally get to vote for Malinowski. But he and DiMaio can at least commiserate over the bombardment of doorknockers, flyers, and TV ads their constituents are about to receive.

Holmdel and Bass River (3rd district)

Of all the counties in the state, Burlington is possibly the most difficult one to incorporate into a congressional map.

The suburban county is, at around 462,000 people, large enough to make up the majority of a congressional district, but mapmakers still need to add hundreds of thousands of people from elsewhere to bring the district up to the proper size.

In previous redistricting cycles, that was accomplished by adding a large chunk of Ocean County – a choice that made some geographic sense, but also meant that conservative white retirees on the Jersey Shore were voting in the same congressional races as young Black suburbanites along the Delaware River. This time, in order to give Rep. Andy Kim (D-Moorestown) a major boost, Democratic mapmakers nixed Ocean County and substituted it for parts of Mercer and Monmouth Counties instead.

The district now resembles a pair of scissors, with one blade extending out to Holmdel in Monmouth County and another down to Bass River in Burlington County. Both of those towns are along the Garden State Parkway, but the gap between them is 60 miles and a whopping 14 highway exits.

Though Kim will have a much easier job holding a district that voted for Joe Biden by 14 points (Biden lost the old 3rd district by 0.2 points), he might have a harder job reaching its far-flung extremities.

Tenafly and Montague (5th district)

Not unlike the 7th district’s combination of Hackettstown and Linden, the 5th district stretches from heavily suburbanized and highly educated towns like Tenafly to rural towns like Montague, the northernmost town in the state and one primarily composed of state forest.

The combination means that Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff) can absorb some of the state’s most Republican areas while still remaining in a staunchly Democratic district that voted for President Joe Biden last year by more than 12 points. Gottheimer’s current 5th district is similarly shaped, but has less of Bergen County and avoids many heavily Democratic towns like Tenafly.

Ironically, when the 5th district was first drawn in something akin to its current form back in 1981, it was done with the opposite intention. That district, which zanily linked parts of Bergen, Passaic, Sussex, Warren, Morris, Hunterdon, and Mercer Counties, was drawn to be safely Republican, which it remained for several redistricting cycles until Gottheimer finally flipped it in 2016.

Now, it’s Bergen County that sets the terms for who represents the district – Gottheimer is from Wyckoff – and smaller towns like Montague don’t have the numbers to overpower places like Tenafly.

Berkeley and Dennis (2nd district)

Owing to South Jersey being more sparsely populated than the rest of the state, the 2nd district will always have to combine various towns hours away from one another, like Berkeley and Dennis.

What makes this cycle’s map odd, though, is that the small piece of Berkeley in the 2nd district is geographically distinct, and is only connected to the rest of the district along a barrier island. In fact, the few thousand 2nd district residents who live in the mainland portion of the town have no way of getting to the rest of the district without first going through the surrounding 4th district.

Most of the choices made by the Democratic redistricting commissioners had some clear purpose, such as protecting incumbents or making a seat bluer or redder. Those reasons may be bad ones, but they’re at least reasons.

The choice to link small parts of Berkeley Township to the 2nd district has no such discernible logic behind it. All it does is strand the few thousand Berkeley residents more than 60 miles away from their representative, Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-Dennis), and – perplexingly – make the Democratic-leaning map look more gerrymandered than it actually is.

Edison and Long Branch (6th district)

Do Edison and Long Branch really belong together in one congressional district?

That’s a question many New Jersey politicos have long since stopped asking themselves, because it feels so obvious. Parts of central Middlesex County and coastal Monmouth County have been combined since 1991; the current mayor of Edison, Sam Joshi, was just one year old when his hometown was first linked with the Jersey Shore.

The current map continues that tradition, allowing Rep. Frank Pallone (D-Long Branch) to stay in a safely Democratic district. Even the Republican-drawn redistricting proposal that was ultimately rejected kept the district intact.

Just because something has been true for a long time, though, doesn’t necessarily mean it makes sense. Do the heavily Asian American towns of Middlesex County really want to be represented by a white representative from a completely different part of the state? Does coastal Monmouth County not belong with the county’s inland towns?

Ironically, should Pallone retire this decade, his successor could make the map finally click into place. If State Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Long Branch) runs to succeed Pallone, he would be both a Monmouth County resident and the district’s first South Asian congressman – finally linking the two halves of the 6th district in a way its original creators would never have anticipated.

Newark and Essex Fells (10th district)

Ever since Rep. Donald Payne Sr. (D-Newark) became the first African American to represent New Jersey in Congress in 1989, the 10th district has been a Black district. Combining most of Newark with heavily Black towns like Irvington and the Oranges, the district is something of a guarantee that Black New Jerseyans will always find themselves represented in Washington.

That status quo is preserved under the new map, and the 10th district remains majority Black. But as part of their mission to shore up vulnerable Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-Montclair) in the 11th district, Democratic mapmakers tweaked the lines such that the 10th district also serves to drown out a few of Newark’s most conservative suburbs.

Probably the most egregious example is Essex Fells, a tiny, 85% white borough in the western reaches of the county that voted for Donald Trump by around seven points and has strikingly few things in common with downtown Newark. The annual property taxes alone in Essex Fells can exceed the entire cost of a house in much of the rest of the district.

Essex Fells is an obvious fit for the 11th district, which is full of historically conservative suburbs just like it. But party politics dictated that Sherrill wouldn’t want 2,000 more Republican-leaning voters in her district – and lo and behold, out they went.

Is a more logical map possible?

Many of the choices made on the current map were done with clear partisan intent; the lines of the 7th and 11th districts in particular make some strange decisions that are difficult to justify using purely geographic reasoning. Wallace did not exactly distinguish himself as a paragon of nonpartisanship, either; throughout the map-drawing process, he betrayed a poor understanding of New Jersey’s political geography and some amount of favoritism towards Democrats.

And yet, the last map wasn’t perfect either, nor was the one before it or the one before that. 

The new 3rd district, for example, awkwardly combines Burlington County with parts of Mercer and Monmouth Counties – but is that really any worse than the previous map’s combination of Burlington and Ocean Counties? The 7th district has grown more unwieldy, but isn’t that partially a consequence of the previous 7th district’s already-illogical shape?

Congressional redistricting is a game of endless choices, sometimes made with benign motives and sometimes with ulterior ones. The new map shows countless instances of both; mapmakers were constrained by their own partisanship and by the simple geography of the state. 

Even if a more logical map was possible, the quest for a perfect map will never be fulfilled. There will always be towns of awkward sizes, incumbents with myriad demands, and parties with opposing beliefs about how to carve up New Jersey. Each cycle, all that can be hoped for is a map that does its best to reflect the state – and keep combinations like Linden and Hackettstown to a minimum.

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