NJ Legislature Must Maintain Geographic Balance

The New Jersey state house. Kevin B. Sanders for Observer

The drama of the leadership fight in the state Assembly will probably be more interesting than the main event this year — the New Jersey gubernatorial election. And perhaps it should.

Assuming Phil Murphy, the Democratic nominee, wins in November, his success most likely will depend on whether the Democratic Party faithful feel included. But the success of any governor always depends on the entire population of New Jersey believing that they have representation regardless of whether they live in the north, central or southern part of the state, and regardless of which political party is in power.

Putting personalities aside, the leadership of the New Jersey state Legislature must include representatives from both the northern and the southern part of the state. It is a governmental imperative, therefore, that the new governor has both Steve Sweeney as Senate president and Vincent Prieto as Assembly speaker.

Whoever becomes New Jersey’s next governor, the state Legislature needs to be geographically balanced. While most of the population is north of the Raritan River, the state is unified only when the populations of the north and the south have leadership in the Legislature.

Both gubernatorial candidates — Kim Guadagno and Murphy — live in Monmouth County, at the center of New Jersey. Prieto represents northern New Jersey, while Sweeney represents the south. All of them have very different concerns, which often reflect where they come from.

North Jersey vs. South Jersey

New Jersey is not a very large state, but it has its own Mason-Dixon line. While the exact location of this dividing line is often debated, it certainly exists.

As a 2008 Monmouth University polling report found, “New Jersey has had a split identity ever since Lord Berkeley and Sir George Carteret divided the new colony into east and west in the late 1600s. More than 300 years later, the state is still a tale of two Jerseys, with the more populous northern portion geared toward New York City and the southern half tuned into Philadelphia — Ben Franklin’s ‘barrel tapped at both ends.’”

Southerners are influenced by their proximity to Philadelphia, while northerners are influenced by nearby New York City. However, the difference is not limited to sports allegiance; it extends to many aspects of daily life. As confirmed by a study from the Walter Rand Institute of Public Affairs, significant differences exist in the areas of public health issues, such as obesity and teen birth rates; in economic issues including income, unemployment, college education levels, and children living in poverty; and in geographic factors like rural versus urbanness. These distinctions shape the policies advanced by the two regions.

Makeup of New Jersey’s Legislature

Under Section II of New Jersey’s constitution, the New Jersey Legislature consists of a 40-member Senate and an 80-member General Assembly. After each decennial census, boundaries for 40 legislative districts are redrawn to each include approximately 220,000 people. Although the Legislature provides equal representation by allocating one senator and two Assembly members for each district, the more populous Northern New Jersey is comprised of more districts. Thus, it is represented by more members of the Assembly and the Senate.

The members of each house elect their own leadership, either the president of the Senate and the speaker of the General Assembly. These key positions not only have broad powers within the Legislature, but also are second and third in line of succession to the governorship after the lieutenant governor. Within each party, there are also opportunities for leadership, as the Democrats and Republicans elect a majority leader, minority leader, assistant leaders and whips.

When discussing the composition of the New Legislature, the focus is almost always on political party. In order to ensure the diverse interests of the state are adequately represented, it is equally important that lawmakers from northern and southern Jersey rise to leadership positions in the Legislature.

Donald Scarinci is a managing partner at Lyndhurst, NJ-based law firm Scarinci Hollenbeck. He is also the editor of the Constitutional Law Reporter and Government and Law blogs.

NJ Legislature Must Maintain Geographic Balance