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The successful Democratic proposal for Atlantic County's county commissioner districts. (Photo: Atlantic County Commissioner Redistricting Commission).

Democratic proposal wins Atlantic County redistricting battle

Pleasantville, Atlantic City will now anchor separate commissioner districts

By Joey Fox, March 07 2022 11:37 am

Atlantic County Commissioner Redistricting Commission tiebreaker Georgia Curio chose the Democratic proposal for the county’s five county commissioner districts this morning, upending a decades-long status quo that favored Republican candidates.

In making her selection, Curio said that while the Republican map had slightly lower population deviation and would cause less voter disruption, the Democratic map was superior because it increases the political influence of the county’s minority community.

“Disruption pales in comparison to disenfranchisement,” she said.

The successful Democratic proposal for Atlantic County’s county commission districts.

The chief difference between the Democratic and Republican proposals, both this year and in past redistricting cycles, was the placement of Pleasantville, a plurality-Latino and heavily Democratic city across the bay from Atlantic City.

Republicans advocated for keeping Pleasantville with Atlantic City in the deep-blue majority-minority 1st district, with the professed reasoning that such a district is the best way to guarantee minority representation on the county commission. In previous redistricting cycles, the county’s most prominent nonwhite elected officials, including 1st district Commissioner Ernest Coursey, concurred with that reasoning.

The failed Republican proposal for Atlantic County’s commission districts, which is nearly identical to the current map.

But this year, given the growth in the county’s minority population, many of those same Black and Latino politicians sided with Democrats, arguing that Atlantic City and Pleasantville should each be able to elect a candidate of their own rather than being bunched together. The new 1st district remains majority-minority but is less overwhelmingly so, while the new 2nd district is 51% white.

“Today is a great day for our democracy,” Democratic party chairman and redistricting commissioner Michael Suleiman said of the result. “We now have a fair, representative, and legal map for all 275,000 residents of Atlantic County. Our map respects and bolsters, rather than dilutes, minority representation, ensures competitive elections, and respects communities of interest.”

But Keith Davis, the chairman of the county Republican Party and one of his party’s two redistricting commissioners, savaged the new map and said that Democrats have embraced “woke ideology.”

“This process has demonstrated how much Atlantic County Democrats are consumed with hate,” Davis said in a statement. “They repeatedly attacked the plan we offered as racist and segregationist even though African-American leaders endorsed the very same plan 10 years ago and 20 years ago.”

Curio said that the battle over communities of interest was “fought to a draw,” and that each side presented compelling arguments for their configuration of Atlantic City and Pleasantville.

“Reasonable minds and persons of goodwill simply are unable to agree about this,” Curio said. “At first blush, [combining] Atlantic City with downbeach communities may seem jarring or discordant; so too the placement of Pleasantville and Absecon with the mainland communities. But perhaps that’s simply a function of the fact that that’s the way things have been for so long.”

Republicans insisted that their map did a better job preserving continuity of representation – the natural product of Republicans drawing the map every cycle since 1981. Their map also divided Egg Harbor Township more cleanly; in large part because of the township’s non-continiguous boundaries, the adopted Democratic map split it between four districts, while the Republican map divided it in three.

The Republican proposal, however, splits three municipalities overall, versus the two municipalities split on the Democratic plan.

From a partisanship perspective, the choice is a clear win for Democrats. On the current map, only the 1st district was a safe bet for Democrats, while the 3rd district was perennially competitive and the 2nd, 4th, and 5th districts all favored Republicans.

Now, the 1st district remains strongly Democratic, but the 2nd district swings nearly 15 points to the left and will likely favor Democratic candidates in most years. The 3rd district remains competitive, and the 4th and 5th districts still lean towards Republicans.

That gives Democrats a much clearer opening to flip the county commission overall, which includes the five district-based seats as well as four at-large seats. Previously, Democrats would have to win the 1st and 3rd districts as well as three of the four at-large seats to win a majority; now, with the 2nd district possibly in their corner, their path to five seats is much more attainable. (In addition to Coursey, at-large Commissioner Caren Fitzpatrick is the only other Democrat currently on the commission.)

But Davis warned that Democrats were playing with fire by making Coursey’s seat less Democratic, noting that Republican County Executive Dennis Levinson narrowly won the district in his 21-point landslide victory in 2019. Coursey is up for re-election this November.

“To Commissioner Ernest Coursey, who endorsed our same Republican map in 2011 and 2002, I say be careful what you wish for,” Davis said. “Commissioner Coursey has flown under the radar his entire political career in safe Democrat districts. That ends this year.”

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