Two Princeton University employees who serve in the New Jersey Legislature might create a potential conflict for legislative redistricting.
The Princeton Gerrymandering Project headed by Sam Wang was brought on to advise Philip J. Carchman, the court-appointed independent tiebreaker on the Legislative Apportionment Commission.
Potentially, Carchman, with Wang and his team in the room, might have to pick a map that could determine the political fate of two Democratic lawmakers who work for the university, State Sen. Andrew Zwicker (D-South Brunswick) and Assemblywoman Safaf Jaffer (D-Montgomery).
With just slight alterations during the redistricting process, the 16th legislative district, now represented by Zwicker and Jaffer, could become hugely competitive over the next decade; conversely, it could become more Democratic, or shift toward the Republicans. That could mean Wang and his staff will influence how the map affects his fellow Princeton University employees.
It’s not clear how the Princeton gang will handle the possible appearance conflict.
Wang, who runs the national redistricting watchdog group, referred a request for comment regarding his work on the mapmaking panel to the Princeton University Office of Media Relations. Their spokesman, Michael E. Hotchkiss, declined to discuss Wang’s role, would not say if Wang had discussed the issue with him, and had no comment on whether the university even had jurisdiction over legislative redistricting.
Carchman politely declined a request for comment. So did his special counsel, Andrew Gimigliano.
But the presence of Team Wang during the legislative redistricting process stands out after the Princeton Gerrymandering Project played a similar advisory role to John E. Wallace, the tiebreaker of the Congressional Redistricting Commission.
Wallace’s performance as the court-selected chairman of the panel that redrew the state’s twelve House districts has been maligned publicly by Republicans and privately by Democrats.
Wang is a self-proclaimed “unaffiliated voter” – that’s what he claims on his Twitter profile. But records obtained through a request made under the state’s Open Public Records Act show that he might be unnecessarily exaggerating his independence. He has a history of voting in primary elections – he did so in 9 of the last 10 years – and then changing his party affiliation to unaffiliated, almost as if he didn’t realize his voter history was publicly available.
The Mercer County Superintendent of Elections says that Wang voted in the 2020 and 2021 Democratic primaries but then switched his registration to unaffiliated. He did the same thing after voting in the 2017 Democratic and the 2018 Republican primaries. The only contested Republican race for voters in Princeton, where Wang lives, that year was for the U.S. Senate; one of the GOP candidates, Bob Hugin, is a Princeton University trustee and donor.
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner appeared to agree with a break from the academicians who exclusively held tiebreaker positions since the 1960s and selected Carchman, a former appellate court judge and administrative director of the state court system.
Still, Wang found his way into the rooms.
In December, Wang announced on Twitter that the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which grades redistricting in other states, would serve as an advisor to both Wallace and Carchman.
Neither of the tiebreakers disclosed how they came to select Wang’s group. It is unusual for congressional and legislative tiebreakers to share staff, or even coordinate their activities.
While Carchman is getting high marks from Democrats and Republicans so far, no actual maps have been submitted for his review. And it’s not entirely clear how much influence Wang might have, or if he will influence the redistricting process to help – or harm – Zwicker and Jaffer.
What is certain, participants in the congressional redistricting process from both parties told the New Jersey Globe, was that Wallace relied on the Princeton Gerrymandering Project to guide him. During four days of meetings in December at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Cherry Hill, Wallace was out the door at an early hour, leaving Wang and his staff to discuss maps with Democrats and Republicans.
Allegations of conflicts has already muddied the congressional redistricting process.
In court filings challenging the new congressional map, Republicans allege that the court-selected tiebreaker, Wallace, a former New Jersey Supreme Court Justice, had a conflict of interest since his wife had contributed to a Democratic member of the New Jersey delegation during the current election cycle , and to a federal PAC called “Stop Republicans.” She also received over $150,000 from Democratic party organizations, elected officials and labor unions when she ran for mayor of Washington Township in Gloucester County a decade ago.
There is no evidence of a close relationship between Wang and the two legislators, Zwicker and Jaffer; Princeton University has about 7,300 employees. While there have been some social media exchanges between Wang and Zwicker, and the two were on a 2019 Eagleton Institute of Politics panel that discussed redistricting issues, Wang has never contributed to Zwicker’s campaigns.
Wang is a professor at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, Zwicker is the head of the Science Education Department at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, and Jaffer is a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer in South Asian Studies.
Conflicts like the one Carchman could face with the Princeton group has not occurred in the past.
When Princeton political science professor Larry Bartels served was the legislative tiebreaker in 2001, there were no Princeton University employees in the legislature.
No Rutgers University employees were in the legislature Alan Rosenthal, who ran the Eagleton Institute of Politics for 20 years, was the tiebreaker in 2011. Donald Stokes, the dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, was the legislative tie tiebreaker in 1981 and 1991, but none of his colleagues were in the legislature at the time.