NEWARK – Packed in here without a lot of elbow room, local worry furrows the brows of a lot of recognizable faces here on the 14th floor of the downtown county building at this public reapportionment hearing where sharp elbows threaten to fly at the front of the room on the subject of packing.
But the larger issue of race finally dictates.
“We must implement a map that allows the diversity of our daily lives to be represented,” says Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange), a Democratic member of the commission. “My legislative district, the 34th, has consistently elected two African American legislators while having only one-third of its voters African American. Clearly, we have more work to do but we cannot turn the clock back.”
The argument anticipates what the Democrats interpret as a Republican argument that would create legislative urban districts dominated by African Americans or Latinos and open the suburbs up to up-for-grabs battlegrounds.
In the aftermath of census numbers that show Hispanics registering the largest voter growth totals statewide, Latino elected officials state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz and Newark Councilman Luis Quintana – like Oliver – don’t want to get packed into bulk Latino districts, or so runs their public testimony counter to a prevailing Republican argument.
Backed by state Sen. Dick Codey (D-Roseland) in his Central Ward race last year, now Central Ward Councilman Darrin Sharif backs Codey in the senator’s redistricting battle.
“I’m here to ensure that fairness is preserved in the totality of our districts,” Sharif tells PolitickerNJ.com.
But maverick state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Newark) wants a bit of both, or neither of both, depending on how you look at it. He doesn’t want what he says was the travesty of 2001 repeated. He wants coherent, contiguous neighborhoods composing legislative districts.
“To me and many taxpayers and voters in this state, this is disgraceful and continues to reflect the political bias of the Democratic and Republican Party,” says Rice. “It is also a reflection of the bias of the Democratic and Republican political parties’ state and county chairpersons, some corrupt political bosses lurking behind the scenes, and the politics of wealthy political candidates and power brokers.”
Having said that, he assures PolitickerNJ.com that he does indeed want to keep Belleville and Bloomfield in his district, even though those towns initially joined in part to blow him out of office.
Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Moris Plains) says state demographic shifts require a significantly altered map from the one the Democrats secured ten years ago.
In her testimony before the commission, state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark) gripes that she’s the only Latina in the state senate. But it’s better than nothing, and any future map has to build on the past decade not depart course, she argues.
“The current map, which does not endorse packing, produced the highest number of Latinos and African Americans,” she says. “Packing is not progress.”
The testimonials drag through the night; again, mostly anti-packing aarguments anticipating GOP strategy. Assemblyman Al Coutinho (D-Newark) begs the commission to appoint the critical eleventh member sooner rather than later, and Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville), co-chair of the redistricting commission, says the presumptive tiebreaker, Rutgers Professor Alan Rosenthal, did not accept an invitation delivered by the bipartisan commission.
“We all use the word ‘minority’ when speaking about African-Americans and Latinos,” says Rahaman Muhammed, president of the Employees International Union SEIU Local 617.
“While that word describes us in terms of numbers,” he adds, “I want to be very clear that this does not mean we are insignificant. It does not mean we are secondary to anyone. It does not mean we will accept being told to sit in the back of the bus when it comes to New Jersey politics.”