This week’s results for New Jersey’s 12 congressional districts – 11 landslide victories and one 8% margin – were predetermined months ago, the product of a colossal error by the reapportionment commission’s Independent member.
John Farmer, currently the Dean of Rutgers Law School-Newark, has among the most distinguished credentials of practically any other lawyer in the State of New Jersey.
Former Attorney General.
Former Chief Counsel.
Former Federal Prosecutor.
Former Counsel to the 9/11 Commission; and most recently
Former Tiebreaker to the New Jersey Redistricting Commission – a position to which he was appointed with the backing of both political parties.
Despite Farmer’s impressive and distinguished success in virtually every other endeavor of public service, New Jerseyans can only hope that the “former” title attached to his position as a redistricting tiebreaker will remain forever permanent.
In other words, Dean Farmer should never, ever be permitted to be a neutral redistricting tiebreaker in any redistricting exercise going forward. For a man of his stature, he shockingly was a complete disaster who, as Tuesday demonstrated, selected a partisan gerrymandered map successfully designed to thwart competition and voter choice.
Here is the background. New Jersey lost a seat in Congress because the most recent U.S. Census Data showed that the State did not grow as fast as the rest of the nation. Under the New Jersey Constitution, a Redistricting Commission comprised of both Democrats and Republicans is charged with determining how the loss of that seat should be addressed. Farmer was appointed to the Independent, tiebreaking member of the Commission.
Most nonpartisan observers predicted Farmer would bring both sides to the middle with a fair, compact, and competitive map and – to make up for the lost district – would place a Democrat & Republican together in a new “fair fight,” toss-up competitive district. That would not have been an ideal outcome for Democrats since New Jersey is the 12th most Democratic state in the nation, but it was a result that at least would have been defensible. That did not occur.
Having worked on redistricting in one capacity or another in more than 30 other states in the nation for over 18 years, I can conclusively say that Farmer displayed the most egregious lack of understanding of the redistricting process that I ever encountered. Consider the following:
- Farmer refused to adopt a test to prevent either party from “gerrymandering” the current congressional map. This deviated from over 30 years of historical practice in New Jersey. The result this week? An evenly split congressional delegation while President Obama won by 17 points over Mitt Romney statewide and while Senator Menendez defeated his GOP opponent by a similar margin. Gerrymandering is disenfranchisement.
- Farmer took the previous map – with very few competitive congressional districts – and somehow managed to make it even less politically competitive. It was unclear to me this was even possible to do.
- Farmer split apart towns that had been in the same congressional districts since the 1800’s;
- Farmer rejected a map endorsed by New Jersey’s nonpartisan communities of color coalition to try to increase minority opportunities in Washington;
- Farmer declined to allow the final map he supported to be aired out in a public hearing;
- Farmer discriminated against northern New Jersey by determining that the “lost” congressional district must come from the North – instead of relying on traditional redistricting criteria like compactness, competitiveness, and communities of interest;
- Farmer rejected the advice of nonpartisan academics who worked for both Democrats and Republicans on redistricting issues in jurisdictions throughout the nation; and
- Most egregious of all, Farmer stripped away the ability of New Jerseyans to decide which party should lose the Congressional seat and instead approved a map that guaranteed Republicans and the Tea Party should decide how our new map should look.
Dean Farmer had a choice between two maps. Either adopt a map that would virtually guarantee that Democrats lose a congressional seat in New Jersey – or approve a “fair fight” map that would pit an incumbent Democrat vs. an incumbent Republican in a true 50/50 competitive district.
In a spectacular and unprecedented error of judgment, Farmer selected a map crafted to guarantee Republicans & the Tea Party would not lose a seat.
Farmer should be ashamed of his decision which was nothing short of a disgrace and, to be sure, a black mark on an otherwise distinguished career.
Unfortunately, Farmer’s vote appears to be an attempt at redemption and to look balanced after playing a part in the approval of a strong Democratic legislative map last year. We thought Farmer’s sense of fairness would have insulated him from Republican pressures to settle that score but, quite obviously, it did not.
John Farmer made one of the worst displays of judgment associated with redistricting that I have ever witnessed in over 18 years of working on redistricting issues, something New Jerseyans will be forced to live with for the next ten years. He should never be allowed by the State of New Jersey to do so again.
Tom Bonier is a nationally recognized redistricting expert, having spent much of the past 18 years working on maps in states across the country. He is a partner and co-founder of Clarity Campaign Labs in Washington, DC.