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The New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton. (Photo: Joey Fox for the New Jersey Globe).

The new legislative map won’t immediately do much to increase minority representation

People of color are the majority in 17 districts, but many advocates wanted more

By Joey Fox, February 25 2022 4:28 pm

Nearly three weeks ago, the two partisan delegations on the New Jersey Legislative Apportionment Commission released their first proposals for the state’s new legislative map. Each one modestly obeyed the standards laid out by commission tiebreaker Philip Carchman, but both fell short in a number of key respects.

Ultimately, those two maps were scrapped entirely in favor of a compromise hashed out by the two parties over the course of three feverish days last week. The result is a bipartisan map that, in most ways, marks a clear improvement over either original proposal.

According to multiple measures, the compromise map is more compact than both original proposals; it includes six districts that split three or more counties, fewer than either proposal, and has a slightly better Reock compactness score (a mathematical measure of a district’s compactness).

Only seven incumbents are unmoored from their current districts by the compromise map, fewer than the eight displaced on the Democratic proposal and the eleven on the Republican proposal. Even that figure overstates the discontinuity of representation created by the new map, since a number of incumbents – Assemblymen Christian Barranco (R-Jefferson) and Brian Bergen (R-Denville), for example – will simply be able to trade districts.

And perhaps most importantly, the map does not clearly favor one political party to the extent that both proposals did. In the 2021 gubernatorial election, the median district voted for Gov. Phil Murphy by 5.7 points, meaning that it was 2.5 points more Democratic than the state; by contrast, the original Democratic proposal had a D+4.2 median district bias, and the Republican proposal had an R+3.6 bias. 

But there is one consideration on which the compromise map falls short: the creation of more majority-minority districts. The map features 17 districts where people of color make up a majority of the population and 23 where white people are a majority.

On the surface, that’s an improvement over the current legislative map, which has 15 majority-minority districts and 25 white-majority districts – totals that are noticeably out of step with a state that is around 48% people of color. 

Still, it doesn’t improve on either original proposal, which each also had 17 majority-minority districts, nor does it hit the 19 or 20 majority-minority districts that many advocates had hoped for. Those hopes had been made known at the two public hearings the commission held after the release of the original draft proposals.

“We are somewhat disappointed that neither map makes quite as much progress as we think is necessary [on creating majority-minority districts],” Latino Action Network President Christian Estevez said at the first public hearing. “We ask that both parties’ commissioners sharpen their pencils and try to do better.”

According to Henal Patel of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, a nonpartisan group that was affiliated with the Latino Action Network and other groups as part of the Fair Districts New Jersey coalition, the insider-dominated commission didn’t go far enough in incorporating the testimony they received.

“It’s clear that they listened to a lot of testimony, both from what the public provided them and what the advocates did,” Patel said. “And we do genuinely appreciate that. At the same time, there are a lot of communities that remain split.”

The result of the bipartisan process was a map that protected more incumbents and delivered a more balanced partisan breakdown than both original proposals, but one that did not do better than either proposal in creating more majority-minority districts.

It’s also worth digging into the relatively minor changes that the commission did end up making from the current map, because it’s not clear that they will result in a significant shift in representation in the legislature.

The 5th district is one of the two districts that will go from majority-white to majority-minority, a change made possible by shifting Pennsauken from the 6th district. However, two of the 5th district’s current legislators, State Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D-Barrington) and Assemblyman William Spearman (D-Camden), are already people of color, so there’s not much room for minority representation to grow in the district.

The other district that was shifted from white-majority to white-plurality is the 27th district, which combines West Orange, Millburn, and Livingston with Montclair and Clifton, two diverse towns currently in the 34th district.

But white people still make up 49% of the population – and 51% of the voting-age population – in this new 27th district, and the most likely delegation come 2023 is an all-white trio of former Gov. Richard Codey (D-Roseland), Assemblyman John McKeon (D-West Orange), and Assemblyman Thomas Giblin (D-Montclair).

That stands in stark contrast to the redrawn 27th district that both parties originally proposed, in which Irvington and Hillside would have been combined with West Orange and Livingston to make a plurality-Black district. Following vociferous complaints from Codey, that configuration was abandoned, a setback for those pushing for more than two Black-plurality or majority districts.

The compromise map also drops a Republican proposal to create a plurality-Asian district in Central Jersey, and creates only 10 districts where a white people aren’t the largest population group, down from 12 on the Republican map (and in line with the 10 proposed on the Democratic map).

“This map does fall short in a lot of ways,” Patel said. “It falls short of reflecting the fact that we are almost half people of color right now, in the state of New Jersey.”

The flipside to the lack of additional majority-minority districts is that a small number of districts, primarily the 28th district in Essex County and the 33rd district in Hudson County, have extremely concentrated minority populations. The 28th district is 72% Black and the 33rd district is 68% Hispanic, which Patel characterized as “packing.”

“Imagine this happening in a southern state,” Patel said. “We’d all call it packing. There is no reason that needed to happen. The two proposed maps didn’t have that.”

The one place where the new map will likely have an immediate effect on minority representation is in Hudson County, where State Sen. Nicholas Sacco (D-North Bergen) is deferring to State Sen. Brian Stack (D-Union City) after they were put into the same district. The open Senate seat Stack is leaving behind will almost certainly go to Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Jersey City), who will represent a white-plurality district with a significant Asian American population.

None of this is to say that the New Jersey legislature will not get more diverse in 2023 and beyond regardless of the map’s boundaries. A number of districts, including the 2nd, 14th, 17th, 36th, and 38th, have large nonwhite populations but all-white legislative delegations, something that could change as the decade progresses.

But for those hoping the redistricting process would result in a major leap forward towards a more diverse legislature, the ultimate map is surely a disappointment.

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