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Kevin J. O'Toole, the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is a former New Jersey State Senator. (Photo: Kevin J. O'Toole.)

The O’Toole Chronicles: My Experiences from Legislative Redistricting

By Kevin O'Toole, October 13 2020 12:01 am

As I filled out my vote-by-mail ballot this year and got to Ballot Question #3, it brought back a flood of memories related to Legislative Redistricting – both as a member of the Legislature deeply affected in 2001 and as a commission member.

In 2001, I was a member of the Senate, in a district that went from Cedar Grove west, then south, then east and ended in Union Township. When redistricting was done, I was a member of the General Assembly in a district that went from Verona/Cedar Grove north to Mahwah!

After that experience, I vowed to make sure I was in the room the next time around. In 2011, I was lucky enough to serve as one of the 5 GOP members on the Legislative Redistricting Committee. For those unaware (or living under a rock), each decade the state constitution requires all 40 legislative districts be analyzed and reshaped after the census is complete. State redistricting requires that the population of all 40 districts be as close to nearly perfect – within an allowable 5% deviation. All towns must be kept whole within a singular district, unless the population of that town exceeds the number allowed in each district. Translation: With the exception of Newark and Jersey  City (whose population exceeds the size of a single district), no other town can be split. This is unlike Congressional redistricting, which allows for towns and even streets to be divided as the politics demands.

Words like compactness, communities of interest, and majority-minority districts are ones that should be understood and mastered before taking on the task of redistricting.

The job of redistricting must be taken seriously. Some of us actually took classes, read legal precedents, attended seminars, spoke with professionals in the business long before we purchased expensive software to draw maps – believe it or not there is more to map making than pointing and clicking. I could write a book on the art and science of serving on the committee, but only 17 people would actually read it. With all due respect to the “State Street” community, the political jockeying of those of us on the committee was perhaps the most intense political lobbying that I have ever witnessed in my life.

A few notes:

  • If you really want to see an incumbent Senator or Assembly member cry, watch as leaked draft maps make their way into public;
  • Regardless of party affiliation, I was approached by party members to cut “an amazing district” and each time the legislator or party boss would emphatically try and convince me that this was the “perfect district”;
  • Political hunger games were being played out for months before the actual first “official” meeting;
  • Serious conversations took place between both parties to leverage political grudges and eliminate problems in the caucus – on BOTH sides;
  • You need to stay on top of the constant barrage of map redesigns. One committee member (John Wisniewski) not-so-subtle moved a few lines to put his state senator (Joe Vitale) in a district with his democratic neighbor (Barbara Buono), thus creating a senate seat for himself. As the story goes, upon immediately learning of this “sleight of hand,” Senator Vitale had a conversation with his Assembly mate, and needless to say order was quickly restored in Middlesex County – oh to have been listening to that conversation.

Since the statute of limitations for keeping secrets has expired, I thought I’d share some districts that were actually drawn up and considered on the Republican side:

  • O’Toole vs Codey: I fully endorsed a West Essex and Wayne based district;
  • O’Toole vs Gill: I knew this one was tougher, but we had to take on incumbents to have any chance to take control;
  • O’Toole vs Girgenti: The GOP actually submitted this in their final plan. As Michael DuHaime can attest, I accepted the challenge of taking on an incumbent who had over 400K in his war chest — you’ve got to give to get;
  • Scutari vs Lesniak: Firefights like this would deplete Democrat cash;
  • Buono vs Vitale: Senator John Wisniewski;
  • Pennacchio vs O’Toole: The Chair of our delegation clearly tried to copy the Wisniewski model and create a senate seat for himself – Former Senator Joe Pennacchio meet Senator Jay Webber;
  • Sarlo vs Sacco: Wood-Ridge meet West New York;
  • Codey vs Pennacchio: Who is really the king of Morris County?
  • Whelan vs Van Drew: Two very smart and popular legislators pitted against each other;
  • Greenstein vs Beck: Public sector unions meet private sector Monmouth County;
  • Greenstein vs Thompson: Everyone wanted courtesy in Middlesex County;
  • Pou vs Gordon: Passaic County Machine vs Bergen County Gentleman; and
  • Gordon vs Schroeder: Don’t blame me, we all thought he was real.

Legislative redistricting is right around the corner; I suggest you put your feet up, grab some popcorn and let the games begin. Oh, and start learning the towns to the North, South, East and West of yours.

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