Redistricting and the politics of race

When Democrats and Republicans tangled over the legislative map 10 years ago, race played the dominant role in those discussions.

Democrats argued that their “unpacked” districts would provide for increased minority representation and give minorities a say in the representation of a greater number of districts.

The GOP argued that only by “packing” districts- creating majority minority districts – would minority representation in the state legislature increase.

Democrats won the argument, giving them a map that has allowed them to control both houses of the state legislature.

But what has become of the minority groups that both parties advocated for 10 years ago?

The results are mixed.

An analysis of the racial make-up of the legislature over the past decade shows that measured against the 2001 legislature – the last one elected under the map created in 1991 – minority representation has remained virtually flat.

In 2001, the legislature was 80.83 percent white, 12.5 percent black, 5 percent Hispanic and 1.67 percent Asian.  Those numbers correlate to a total of 97 white legislators in both houses, 15 black representatives, six Hispanics and two Asians.

This year, the legislature is made up of 80 percent white representatives, 12.5 percent black, 5.83 percent Hispanic and 1.67 percent Asian.  In all, the number of minority representatives rose by just one over the past decade, while the minority population rose by 20 percent.

“I don’t think it was,”  Martin Perez of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey said when asked if he thought the 2001 map was successful in boosting minority representation. “The facts are the facts. What did we have then, no (Hispanic) senators and six assembly (representatives.) What do we have now? It is no different.”

Perez said the ultimate goal should be representation proportional to the census numbers and the wresting of control of the process from the political parties.  Only by creating majority-minority districts is that going to happen.

But Democrats and other minority groups argue that the current racial make-up is not the only one that should be considered.  The loss of Camden County Mayor Dana Redd last year dropped the number of minorities by one and other election cycles over the past decade have produced greater minority representation.

The 2006 and 2007 legislature, for instance, had 28 minority representatives, or just over 23 percent.  What’s more, they argue, the 2002 elections yielded an additional four minority representatives over 2000, the final election using the map drawn in 1991. From 2002 to 2006, Albio Sires, a Cuban-American, served as the Speaker of the Assembly and the current speaker, Sheila Oliver, is the first black representative to hold the post. This year, 56 percent of all committees in the legislature have either a minority chairperson or vice-chairperson.

What’s more they say, is minorities had far more opportunity to run and win election under the current map than any before it.  The new map should start from that premise and build, they say.

“There were greater opportunities for minority representation under that map given the population distribution than there were in the previous map,” said Jerome Harris, chairman of the New Jersey Black Issues convention and co-chairman of the New Jersey Redistricting Legislative Coalition.  “The opportunity for people of color who were a substantial portion but not a majority of the district was greater under the 2000 map.  That map had better results and yielded more representation of people of color than the 1990 map.”

What is at stake is not only control of the legislature but the relative power of several different groups, including Latinos, who as of the most recent census are the state’s largest minority group. Republicans have already siganled behind the scenes that their strategy will include packed or majority minority districts, while Democrats say they plan to push again for unpacked districts.

Whether either will level the playing field remains to be seen.

The most recent census data show that minorities in the three categories represented in the legislature now make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s population. Hispanics alone make up nearly 18 percent.  Of the voting age population, which will play heavily into the configuration of the map, minorities make up 37%, Hispanics 16 percent.

Former state Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo called the current map a success because of the increased opportunities created for minorities in the legislature.  That success needs to be continued, he said, with an eye toward proportional representation.

“I don’t want a quota in this game because I think to try to fix a quota would be counterproductive for everyone involved. I would like to see the numbers for good political reasons start to approximate the percentage in the population.”

But Caraballo is against “packing” whether or not it would create more minority representatives.  Packing all minorities into a district together would drag us backwards, he said. When first elected to the assembly in 1996, Caraballo said, his 29th District was predominantly white.  He was elected without the benefit of a minority packed district and believes they send a bad message.

“The day we get to the point where we say only Latinos can represent Latinos and only blacks can represent blacks, what is the ineluctable conclusion to that?  Only whites can represent whites. My god, is that where we are heading?”

And while he would love to see a spike in the number of minority legislators in the coming years, he believes it cannot be at the expense of good relations among all groups.

“I want to see a bunch of Latino senators and black senators and Asian senators and woman senators, but I don’t want to see it at the expense of not appreciating each other’s contributions, each other’s gain and each other’s pain. Otherwise we are just fighting each other.”

Redistricting and the politics of race