Whenever a new political redistricting process begins, one of the most frustrating things to account for is where incumbent legislators already live. Those tasked with redistricting want to draw as logical a map as possible, but they also frequently have to make sure their map doesn’t drastically upend the existing status quo – especially if, as is the case in New Jersey, the mapmakers have close ties with the legislators involved.
The two proposals released yesterday by the Legislative Apportionment Commission, one by the commission’s Democratic delegation and the other by its Republicans, clearly took incumbency into consideration, as they were asked to do by commission tiebreaker Philip Carchman.
But not every incumbent got their wishes, and a sizable number of sitting legislators – eight on the Democratic map, 11 on the Republican map – were redrawn into new districts. Another few legislators on each map were technically kept in the same district, but with that district so radically altered as to be functionally a new constituency. (Incumbents can move to their new district up to a year before the election – but of course, they’d rather not have to.)
Not coincidentally, nearly every incumbent disrupted on the Democratic map is a Republican, and vice versa on the Republican map. The parties each have a vested interest in protecting their own members and messing around with as many of the other party’s legislators as possible.
Over the next few weeks, the commission will receive feedback both from members of the public and members of the legislature dissatisfied with the maps, so neither proposal is likely to become law as-is. Nevertheless, the maps show who each party is invested in protecting, and who they’re fine with screwing over.
The Democratic map: Reshuffle Burlington and annoy Republican renegades
By far the biggest change on the Democratic proposal, which is for the most part a mildly redrawn version of the current legislative map, is in Burlington County.
The current map’s north-south split, in which the 7th district covers very Democratic communities along the Delaware River and the 8th district is based in the county’s more competitive inland towns, is eschewed in favor of an east-west split that makes both districts quite Democratic.
In doing so, the map unmoors four of the districts’ six incumbents and strands a fifth in an unwinnable district, totally upending the county’s legislative status quo.
The clear targets of the redraw are the 8th district’s newly elected Republican legislators. Assemblyman Brandon Umba (R-Medford) is stranded in the 7th district — he is the lone Pacific Islander in the legislature — and Assemblyman Michael Torrissi (R-Hammonton) is shifted to the Ocean County-based 9th district, where three Ocean County Republican incumbents could lock him out of another term.
State Sen. Jean Stanfield (R-Westampton), meanwhile, stays in the 8th district but would have little hope of victory in a seat Gov. Phil Murphy won by 12 points. In fact, Umba might actually stand a greater chance of winning re-election in the 7th district, which was “only” Murphy +7, than Stanfield would in the 8th.
To accomplish this total shift, the redraw switches State Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Delran) and Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-Delran) into the 8th district, but given how Democratic the district is, they’d likely have little trouble making the transition. The only incumbent left alone, Assemblywoman Carol Murphy (D-Mount Laurel), would have the inside track for the 7th district’s open Senate seat.
And just to add a touch more chaos, Assemblyman Ronald Dancer (R-Plumsted)’s home in Ocean County is moved into the 8th district as well. But that’s likely because Plumsted doesn’t cleanly fit in any other district rather than being part of any larger strategy by Democrats. Dancer is no stranger to switching districts – he represented the 30th district before being moved to the 12th last decade – but he may forgo re-election this time instead.
The other three incumbent shifts on the Democratic map seem to have had a very different purpose: frustrate Republican legislators wherever possible.
Under the Democratic plan, Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Franklin) would be shifted from the 23rd district to the solidly Democratic 15th district, and 26th district Assemblymen Jay Webber (R-Morris Plains) and Christian Barranco (R-Jefferson) would live in new districts with two Republican Assembly incumbents: Webber in the 25th, Barranco, the lone Hispanic Republican in the legislature, in the 24th.
Geographically, these are minor shifts that would have been easy to avoid, so the obvious conclusion is that Democratic commissioners made them deliberately to mess with North Jersey Republicans – and, specifically, troublesome Republicans. Two of the dislodged legislators, Peterson and Webber, were at the forefront of last year’s rebellion against the statehouse vaccine mandate, as was 25th district Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Denville).
It may also be that Democrats are using the legislators as bargaining chips. As the maps get reworked in the coming weeks, Democrats can thoughtfully offer to alter their map to give Peterson, Webber, and Barranco a helping hand – in exchange for concessions elsewhere.
The Republican map: Upend the Middlesex status quo
Compared to the Democratic map, the Republican map makes significantly more changes, and nowhere is that truer than in Central Jersey.
Central Jersey was home to the most politically brazen decision on the 2011 map, in which Princeton and South Brunswick were put into the 16th district, making the district far more Democratic and eventually allowing Democrats to flip all three of its seats.
But the Republican proposal released yesterday doesn’t just undo the 16th district; it fundamentally destroys and rebuilds every district in Middlesex, Mercer, and Somerset Counties save for the 15th and 19th districts.
Assemblyman Dancer is once again among the casualties, with his home of Plumsted moving to the 14th district. His two counterparts left behind in the 12th district, meanwhile, suddenly have to run in a competitive district that’s also home to 18th district Assemblyman Sterley Stanley (D-East Brunswick).
Dancer still has a winnable district to run in, since the redrawn 14th gets substantially more Republican. But he’d have to duke it out with the 14th district’s two Democratic assemblymen, Assemblyman Dan Benson (D-Hamilton) and Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D-Hamilton), to stay in the legislature.
14th district State Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Plainsboro), meanwhile, is redrawn into the 17th district, which is turned into an Asian-plurality district. She’s joined there by 16th district State Sen. Andrew Zwicker (D-South Brunswick), 16th district Assemblywoman Sadaf Jaffer (D-Montgomery), and 17th district Assemblyman Joe Danielsen (D-Franklin).
To their north, 16th district Assemblyman Roy Freiman (D-Hillsborough) finds himself alone in a competitive Somerset County seat that has far more in common with the pre-2011 16th district than with the territory Freiman currently represents.
The new 18th district is in most ways the successor to the current 17th district, and is home to 17th district State Sen. Bob Smith (D-Piscataway), 17th district Assemblyman Joseph Egan (D-New Brunswick), 18th district State Sen. Patrick Diegnan (D-South Plainfield), and 22nd district Assemblywoman Linda Carter (D-Plainfield).
Finally, the new 22nd district puts Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden) and Assemblyman James Kennedy (D-Rahway) into a seat dominated by Edison, home to 18th district Assemblyman Robert Karabinchak (D-Edison).
For those keeping score, that means nine Central Jersey incumbents would be redrawn into new districts, and another nine would live in districts that look radically different from their current incarnations.
The colossal changes are part of a larger gamble by Republicans to draw a large number of competitive seats that, if the environment is favorable and the dominoes fall properly, could give them a legislative majority or something very close to it. But on a commission that’s supposed to value continuity of representation as well as competitiveness, the Republican proposal may run into strong headwinds.
Up in North Jersey, where the core of the current map is left intact, two small shifts may spell bad news for two more Democratic incumbents.
33rd district Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro (D-Hoboken) is double-bunked into the 32nd district, where a full complement of Democratic legislators already lives. That may be more due to geography than anything else; Hudson County grew much faster than the state as a whole from 2010 to 2020, meaning that its legislative districts had to shrink, a difficult task to do while preserving municipal boundaries. (Democrats solved the same problem by splitting Jersey City three ways instead of only two.)
And 38th district Assemblyman Christopher Tully (D-Bergenfield) finds himself in the 39th district, a competitive Bergen County district represented by three Republicans. The shift is also part of the Republican strategy to add more competitive seats, but it could easily backfire on Republicans if Tully is able to unseat 39th district State Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-River Vale) or one of the district’s assemblymembers.
In Carchman we trust
The decision on which map to choose ultimately lies with Carchman, but even before that fateful choice is made, Carchman will be able to exert significant influence on both parties’ maps.
In a memo describing his standards from last month, Carchman wrote that “there is a substantial benefit to the citizenry of New Jersey to maintain a modicum of stability in the core of legislative districts. Interaction with legislators and knowing one’s legislative district has value and should not be discounted… Unless necessary to meet other standards, cores of existing districts should be maintained.”
Neither map complies with this standard, though the Republican proposal undoubtedly flouts it more; the Democratic redraw of Burlington County and the Republican dismantling of Central Jersey both create major discontinuities in representation that aren’t necessary to meet the commission’s other goals. So if Carchman tells Democrats to put Assemblyman Peterson back into the 23rd district, or tells Republicans they can’t obliterate the 18th district, the parties will have to listen.
The end goal for each delegation on the commission will be to present a map that is unobjectionable to Carchman while still benefiting their party’s legislators as much as possible. What Carchman’s thinking right now is anyone’s guess, but neither map is probably there yet.