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Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe).

The great Essex County shuffle

Suburban Essex completely redrawn on compromise legislative map

By Joey Fox, February 18 2022 12:55 pm

For the most part, the deal legislative map that will almost certainly be approved later today is a map that preserves the status quo. Republicans get some favorable changes in South Jersey and Democrats keep Central Jersey drawn in a way that largely benefits their party, but the number of blown-up districts and double-bunked incumbents is minimal.

Minimal everywhere, that is, except for Essex County. After both initial draft maps reshaped the 27th district but left the rest of the county largely the same, the compromise map takes a hatchet to the existing lines, putting State Sen. Nia Gill (D-Montclair) and former Gov. Richard Codey (D-Roseland) into the same district, clearing a path for a Senate run by Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake (D-East Orange), and shifting around several members of the Assembly.

The biggest change comes in the 27th district, which loses its Morris County portions and instead shifts north, combining Livingston, Millburn, Roseland, and West Orange with Montclair and Clifton from the 34th district.

That means a potential showdown between Codey, who has served in the legislature for a whopping 48 years, and the comparative newbie Gill, who has “only” been going to Trenton for 28.

If both Codey and Gill do in fact decide to run in the new 27th, Codey would probably be given the Essex County line, which would put him at a clear advantage. His ticket would likely include Assemblyman John McKeon (D-West Orange), his running mate for the last 20 years, and 34th district Assemblyman Thomas Giblin (D-Montclair).

But in a district comprised of diversifying and increasingly progressive suburbs, an all-white-male ticket whose youngest member is 63 might seem an odd fit. That leaves a potential opening for Gill, whose quixotic bid for the Senate Presidency last month shows she’s no stranger to uphill campaigns.

With Giblin and Gill both moved into the 27th district, the new 34th district – which covers East Orange, Belleville, Bloomfield, Glen Ridge, Orange, and Nutley – has a Senate seat open for the taking. Timberlake would be an immediate favorite, leaving an opening in the Assembly that may go to a Bloomfield candidate; 28th district Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Nutley) should be fine for the district’s third seat.

Gill could also theoretically move into the new 34th district and try her chances there, but Timberlake would be the favorite for the county line anyways, and without Montclair in Gill’s corner, a campaign against Timberlake might be even more hopeless than one against Codey.

Finally, the 28th district experiences the fewest dramatic changes, but Caputo is traded out for Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-South Orange), who currently serves alongside Codey and McKeon in the 27th district.

That’s a huge shift for Jasey, who is Black but has long represented wealthier and whiter suburbs like Livingston and Harding – a stark difference from the new 28th district, which includes heavily Black Irvington, Hillside, and parts of Newark alongside Maplewood and South Orange. In redrawing Essex County, the commission appeared to take Jasey’s race into consideration far more than her actual history as a politician.

In addition to causing a major shuffle in legislative representation, the new map also looks like it will be a setback for advocates hoping to increase the number of majority-minority districts in the state. The initial proposals made the both 27th and 34th districts plurality Black, but by combining the whitest parts of each into the new 27th district, that progress looks like it’s been undone on the deal map.

The map looks like a done deal, and dozens of incumbents around the state can breathe a sigh of relief. But in Essex County, the drama is just beginning.

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