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Assemblymembers Claire Swift and Don Guardian. (Photo: Claire Swift & Don Guardian for Assembly via Facebook).

Four ways to redistrict Atlantic County

The 2nd legislative district will have to exclude some Atlantic County towns – but which ones?

By Joey Fox, December 03 2021 2:15 pm

As mapmakers on the Legislative Apportionment Commission gear up to draw the legislative maps that will shape New Jersey politics for the next decade, one of the problems they’ll be faced with is an age-old question: how should Atlantic County be redrawn?

Atlantic County, perhaps more than any other county in the state, is a community of interest unto itself, and mapmakers have long recognized this by giving the county its own legislative district. But in every redistricting cycle since 1981, the county has been slightly too big for one district, meaning that a few municipalities at the edges are always shunted into different districts.

In 2011, the reapportionment commission chose to separate six Atlantic County municipalities from the 2nd district. To the south, Corbin City, Estell Manor, and Weymouth were put in the 1st district; to the north, Hammonton, which hasn’t been part of the 2nd district since the 1990s, was kept in the 8th district; and to the east, Galloway and Port Republic were moved to the 9th district.

“It’s like you didn’t leave your school, but all the teachers are different, all the kids are different, and you’re a stranger in your own home,” conservative radio host Harry Hurley said of the 2011 remapping. “It was very unnatural, very political.”

As Hurley characterized it, many of the decisions made were fraught and politically motivated, and have since caused some frustration, especially from Galloway residents who feel underserved in the Ocean County-based 9th district. And they’re decisions that the commission will now have to make all over again, with a host of different considerations in mind.

The first, and most directly important, consideration is population size. The current 2nd district is home to about 217,000 people as of the 2020 Census, meaning it would have to gain around 15,000 people to reach the ideal district size of 232,225. No 2nd district could be considered reasonable or complete if it didn’t at least come close to hitting that population goal.

Another consideration is communities of interest, since some municipalities are more tightly connected to the district’s urban core than others. One of the chief arguments made in favor of putting Galloway back into the district is that it, unlike some of the county’s more rural inland communities, is deeply intertwined with Atlantic City.

Also critical is how other districts bordering Atlantic County might change. For example, the 1st district is underpopulated and needs to gain people from somewhere; taking communities from the 1st and putting them into the 2nd, then, would likely be ill-advised.

Finally – though the commissioners would be loath to admit it – there are political considerations at work, too. Both parties will be looking to make the historically competitive 2nd district, which just hosted a barnburning Senate election between State Sen. Vince Polistina (R-Egg Harbor Township) and Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Northfield), more favorable to their party, and will be especially careful to avoid cutting out their own candidates’ hometowns.

Juggling these myriad concerns will not be an easy task for the mapmakers, and there isn’t one perfect option that solves every problem. Presented here are four possibilities for directions the commission could go, each with its own advantages – and its own pitfalls.

The map of least resistance

The 2nd district needs to gain around 15,000 people, and the population of Hammonton is, lo and behold, 14,736 people, so the commission’s most straightforward option is to put Hammonton back into the district after 30 years away.

This option would be by far the cleanest way of getting the 2nd district to an ideal population size, and would also sever Hammonton from the Burlington County towns it’s awkwardly been paired with in the 8th district.

Many other problems remain unsolved under this proposal, however.

For one, it wouldn’t allow the underpopulated 1st district to pick up any new municipalities, and that district would instead have to shift westward. For another, it would force 8th district Assemblyman-elect Michael Torrissi, a Hammonton Republican, into a primary against 2nd district Assemblymembers-elect Don Guardian and Claire Swift.

And it’s not entirely clear Hammonton residents are as desperate to return to the 2nd district as Hurley says they are. No Hammonton residents testified at a November 16 redistricting hearing in Atlantic City, and Montclair State University professor of political science Brigid Callahan Harrison said that Hammonton, as an inland and more rural community, is not as closely tied to Atlantic County as some other towns.

“In my mind, there’s a lot more public outcry to put Galloway back in than Hammonton,” said Harrison, who also sought the Democratic nomination for South Jersey’s 2nd congressional district in 2020. “If [Hammonton residents] aren’t making noises to be included back in the 2nd, I think that that’s an easy call for the redistricting commission.”

From a political standpoint, the “map of least resistance” would be a mixed blessing for Republicans. Since Hammonton is heavily Republican – it voted for Republican gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciattarelli 68-31% – putting it in the 2nd district would make the district around two points more Republican, which could be critical in a close election.

But it would also conversely shift the neighboring 8th district, which is itself an extremely competitive district, about two points bluer; Hammonton was crucial for State Sen.-elect Jean Stanfield (R-Eastampton)’s two-point victory over State Sen. Dawn Addiego (D-Evesham) last month.

Stanfield won Hammonton by 1,490 votes, and her districtwide win was only 1,721 votes. If Hammonton was taken out and replaced by a Democratic town in Burlington or Camden County, Addiego may well have won.

The rural sweep

Unlike Hammonton residents, residents of Galloway (pop. 37,870) have been extremely clear that they want to be returned to the 2nd district, alongside the much smaller Port Republic (pop. 1,103).

“Galloway and Port Republic are the only towns in Atlantic County that are included in Legislative District 9, the bulk of which is in Ocean County,” said one Galloway resident who testified at the Atlantic City hearing. “The concerns of Atlantic County are not necessarily the same as those of Ocean County.”

Another person who testified noted how Galloway and Atlantic City are tied together through two of their largest institutions, Atlanticare Regional Medical Center and Stockton University, and keeping the two municipalities separated did both a disservice.

“The students who reside in Stockton’s new Atlantic City dorms right across the street shuttle between here and Stockton’s main Galloway campus,” she said. “Keeping Atlantic City and Galloway divided between the 2nd and 9th districts splits communities of common interest and diminishes the voting and advocacy power of Stockton students.”

According to both Harrison and Hurley, Galloway’s removal from the district in 2011 was politically motivated.

“My thinking was that Galloway was taken out so that [Democratic mayor of Galloway] Meg Worthington couldn’t run for the state legislative elections,” Harrison said. “You see these lines ebbing and flowing, and if you’re just looking at it 10 years later, you might not realize why they did that.”

Hurley, meanwhile, said that it was removed because of the late State Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic City), who felt that the town had turned against him.

Regardless of the reasoning ten years ago, if any major changes are made to the 2nd district this cycle, it’s likely that moving Galloway and Port Republic would be one of them. Should that come to pass, the district would have a population of around 256,000 people, meaning that it would need to lose 24,000 elsewhere.

One option for doing so would be to essentially take out all of the district’s remaining inland, mostly rural towns: Buena, Buena Vista, Folsom, Mullica, and Egg Harbor City. Most of these five municipalities have been in different districts within living memory, and some – like Buena and Buena Vista – are in many ways more clearly tied to cities like Vineland than to Atlantic City and the Jersey shore.

The “rural sweep” option would create a cohesive and sensible Atlantic County district – one that is no longer constrained by soon-to-be-former Assemblyman John Armato (D-Buena Vista), whose hometown would have inconveniently precluded removing Buena Vista from the district had he won last month.

More problematic, though, is what exactly would happen to the five removed towns if they were no longer in the 2nd district. Buena and Buena Vista could relatively easily move to the 1st district, where they’ve been before, but Folsom, Mullica, and Egg Harbor City would either have to become a geographically distant northern arm of the 1st district or be awkwardly added to the 8th or 9th districts.

Under this option, the 2nd district would move just over one point to the left; the five towns the district loses are mostly quite Republican, while Galloway is a swing town that voted for Ciattarelli by 13 points but for President Joe Biden by two points only a year earlier.

Democrats, then, would stand to benefit from adding Galloway back in – so long as it displaces municipalities that are redder than it is.

The 2001 redux

Instead of losing the northern municipalities of Mullica and Egg Harbor City in favor of Galloway, the 2nd district could alternately relinquish the coastal town of Somers Point to the neighboring 1st district.

This would allow for more geographic continuity, and also has some historic precedent; Somers Point was located in the 1st district until 2011, and has clear connections with Cape May County’s Ocean City.

“You can make the case that there are communities of interest between Somers Point and Ocean City,” Harrison said. “While they’re in different counties, they do have a certain common identity. Because of the needs of the 1st to grow in some way, I could see that being put on the table.”

Still, even if Route 52 connects Somers Point to Ocean City, it’s still clearly embedded in Atlantic County; if it were to be removed, there may well be frustrated Somers Point residents coming to redistricting hearings in 10 years just the way Galloway residents have done this year.

Since Galloway and Somers Point have similar partisanship, the political results would be a wash. Murphy would have lost the “2001 redux” option by 7.3 points instead of 7.9, the kind of change that would only make a difference in an incredibly tight election.

The chaos causer

For Hurley, true justice will only be served if both Hammonton and Galloway are placed back in the 2nd district. In both an interview and a separate piece for WPG talk radio, Hurley insisted that Hammonton and Galloway were only taken out of the district because of political machinations.

“[Galloway and Hammonton] belong in it,” he said. “They’re in Atlantic County, let’s start there. They’re major cities in Atlantic County. Traditionally, they were always in Atlantic County, and for purely political reasons, they’re not in [the 2nd district].”

But while it is technically possible to draw a district that returns both towns to their Atlantic County home, doing so causes more problems than it’s probably worth. In order to account for the nearly 54,000 people living in the two towns plus Port Republic, the 2nd district would have to not only shed Buena, Buena Vista, Folsom, and Somers Point, but also some other core piece of Atlantic County.

Depicted here is one option, in which Longport, Margate, and Ventnor, all of which lie on the same island as Atlantic City, are removed. That would likely be a political nonstarter, since Assemblywoman-elect Swift lives in Margate.

Other options could remove Hamilton Township, a large suburban municipality to the east of Egg Harbor Township, or Linwood and Northfield, two core Atlantic County communities across the bay from Atlantic City. No matter which option is taken, the district would be losing some key part of the county in favor of Hammonton, which is far more geographically and politically distinct – in other words, a bad trade.

What will the commission decide?

While they’re far from the only possibilities, these four options provide roadmaps for what the commission may do with the 2nd district in the coming months. They also show that, no matter what the commission decides, not everyone will be appeased.

If Galloway stays outside the district, its residents will have another 10 years of being separated from Atlantic City and feeling ignored by legislators from Ocean County. If Galloway is put in but other towns are removed, residents of those towns may complain just as much, and legislators from other districts could resent an influx of constituents unknown to them. 

And if any proposal moves the district even one point towards one party, the other party will surely be nervous, knowing that the 2nd district regularly hosts hotly contested elections decided by narrow margins.

But a map must ultimately exist; the commission will have to pick which battles it wants to fight and which ones it wants to leave behind. And in such a competitive district, the tiniest of choices could have major reverberations.

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