Redistricting postmortem: 10 takeaways

As primary season heads into full swing and the redistricting wars fade into memory, we at PolitickerNJ thought we’d take a shot at putting the process into perspective. The immediate impact of the map chosen by Rutgers Professor Alan Rosenthal won’t be known until November, but for the moment the assumption is that the Democrats walked away from the table with control of the Legislature, possibly for the next decade.

But what else was learned from the process? Will any of the lessons be used next year when a new commission redraws the state’s Congressional Districts, or a decade from now when the cartography of legislative map again takes center stage? 

There is an old saying in war that the victor gets to write the history books. That holds true in this case as well as Democrats now think they have a playbook for future efforts and were far more willing to talk about it than their counterparts. With that, we offer 10 takeaways from the redistricting effort as well as some awards and various random thoughts.

 

1. The team that looks the most disciplined at the beginning doesn’t necessarily prove the most organized at the end

The Republicans sounded unstoppable going into redistricting as they told anyone within earshot that they were prepared to accept competitive districts themselves if it meant landing a map that overall gave the GOP a better chance of winning. By contrast, the Democrats couldn’t escape the charge that some of their members were more worried about self-preservation than producing a team-winning map. “Cohesion was a major concern,” said a Democratic source close to the process, reflecting on the early days of redistricting.

But GOP Commission Co-Chairman Jay Webber throughout appeared to gut check decisions with Commissioner Bill Palatucci, Gov. Chris Christie’s longtime confidant, while Dem Co-Chairman John Wisniewski projected the image of lone Democratic leader. Though GOP commission members vehemently disputed it, the appearance of Gov. Chris Christie at the final meetings of the commission looked to undermine Webber’s leadership even more.

 

2. The LD 19 option wasn’t Wisniewski being devious

Aiming to satisfy minority coalition demands and checkmate Republicans arguing that the Democratic Party hasn’t done enough to foster minority representation, the Democrats offered one map that joined Atlantic City with Vineland. The map had the double intention, of course, of making it easier for state Sen. Jim Whelan, (D-2), to get re-elected. But tiebreaking member Professor Alan Rosenthal didn’t like that map, and Democrats regrouped with several alternatives, including a proposal for LD 19 that would join New Brunswick and Perth Amboy and satisfy the demands of the Latino Action Network, the New Brunswick-based Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey and Perth Amboy Mayor Wilda Diaz for a minority Middlesex district. The option would also have pitted senators Barbara Buono and Joe Vitale against each other, which, when leaked, caused uproar in the progressive community and instant demonization of Democratic Commission Chairman John Wisniewski, who – conveniently – would likely have become a senator under the scenario. Another option was to carve Hawthorne out of LD 35 and create an opportunity for Latina Assemblywoman Nellie Pou, (D-35), North Haledon, to move to the upper chamber. When the Atlantic City/Vineland option fell through with Rosenthal, “We couldn’t do neither (New Brunswick/Perth Amboy; or Pou),” said a Democratic source. The (John) Girgenti move and subsequent ascension of Pou became the obvious choice.

 

3. Democrats didn’t start the process intending to sacrifice state Sen. John Girgenti (D-35)

The first map submitted by the Democrats did not slice Girgenti out of the 35th District, according to a source close to the process. In spite of ending up on the losing team in an intra-party leadership fight, the senator told PolitickerNJ last summer that state Senate President Steve Sweeney, (D-3), of West Deptford had assured him he would be all right during redistricting. Initially, Girgenti was not a casualty. But as the Republicans pressured Democrats with their minority argument, the Democratic power players in the room, including Wisniewski, state Sen. Paul Sarlo, (D-36), and Assembly Majority Leader Joe Cryan, (D-20), felt the sting of recruits from their home districts calling for greater minority representation. And with 11th member Professor Alan Rosenthal issuing a memo asking for two Latino districts, Girgenti became expendable.

 

4. Gov. Chris Christie’s presence at the Heldrich caused some Democratic Party palpitations

The image of the evil imperial leader coming and going behind tinted glass and in the company of beefy security was prized by Democratic operatives behind closed doors at the New Brunswick hotel. But, according to one Democratic source close to the process, Democrats did wonder if the smart and aggressive Republican governor had a joker he could play with Professor Rosenthal. “On the one hand, I thought to myself that it would be hard for this professor to go back to academia and explain how he was bullied by the governor if he didn’t pick the Democratic map,” said the source. But on the other, he admitted, Democrats worried about Christie’s resources and the depth of a relationship Rosenthal had with Christie confidant Palatucci. If Democrats have learned anything in the last 16 months, it is that they should never underestimate the governor or his political prowess. Some say Christie’s presence did more harm than good, but Democrats in the know say Christie’s 11th-hour pitch gave the GOP some life, made Democrats sweat, and was easily the most convincing voice in the GOP camp in front of Rosenthal. 

 

5. The Democrats’ first and final maps were not dramatically different

Webber told the media down the final stretch of the process that the Republicans were trying to meet the demands of Professor Alan Rosenthal by making changes to their map while “the Democrats appear to be running in place.” It was true. A Democratic source close to the process said despite final changes that made key districts slightly more competitive – the 38th, the 2nd, and the 14th – and moved Hawthorne out of the 35th, the team’s first and seventh maps did not bear major differences. Part of the reason the Dems were quietly rejoicing in early February was because a Rosenthal memo mirrored many of the Democrats’ early priorities. Conversely, the Republicans’ strategy seemed to be to start at the extreme – and then, failing to control the debate surrounding bleaching and packing – meet in the middle.

 

6. Be careful what you wish for

When Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner asked both redistricting teams for a list of three possible candidates for the 11th member of the commission, both sides thought the possibility of a match was remote. After all, each team went in with a different strategy and both hoped to game the list into an advantage. The choice of Rosenthal seemed especially remote as one Democratic source as early as December told PolitickerNJ that the Rutgers professor and legislative expert was their top choice. But Republicans also felt they had something to gain with Rosenthal as the tie-breaker and put him on their list as well, telling PolitickerNJ at the time, “We’re very comfortable with Alan Rosenthal and we think he’ll give us a fair shot.” In hindsight, Rosenthal’s preference for continuity – which some read to mean “incumbency protection” – clearly favored Democrats, who entered redistricting with a 24-16 vote advantage in the Senate.

Despite the setback dealt the party, Palatucci said his team had no regrets with the choice, reserving their criticism for Rosenthal’s map-making team, which Palatucci said was far from top-notch.

  

7. Crisis breeds cohesion

Since taking office in 2010, Gov. Chris Christie had succeeded in keeping Democrats on their heels, jabbing whenever they caught their balance and throwing haymakers when they started to stumble. Many Republicans said they thought the factionalism inside the Democratic camp would carry over into the redistricting process as the party’s feudal lords – George Norcross III in South Jersey and Joe DiVincenzo in Essex – sought to protect their fiefdoms by playing footsie with the governor. But Democrats realized early that redistricting was for all the marbles and – perhaps inexplicably – were able to put their parochialism aside for the common good. Even the “Screw Codey” crew – those Democrats looking to redistrict the former governor into oblivion – kept their egos in check. The party walked away with a map that will likely keep them in power, and Codey remained in a district he can win.

 

8. A lot of chickens yet to hatch

While Democrats danced in the streets to celebrate the new map, Republicans seethed. But when the emotions died down, the GOP had a decision to make. Challenge or not. Rather than playing the sour grapes game and risking a disastrous courtroom loss, the party hunkered down for campaign season and promised to come out strong despite the unfavorable lines. Remember, the GOP still wields a hammer in the form of the governor, who is not only popular, but also inordinately good at making the Democrats look bad. While Republicans know they have an uphill climb, privately many feel the game isn’t over, particularly when a certain Hudson County Democratic state senator continues to look like an elephant in a donkey suit. Palatucci perhaps said it best in his summation of the process to PolitickerNJ. While disappointed that the map went the other way, he was nevertheless optimistic that the map was – at the very least – better than the one adopted 10 years ago.

“Alan has said to many people following the conclusion of the process, including many not involved in the process, that it was a very close call and one of the most difficult decisions he’s ever had to make,” Palatucci said in an email. “Alan’s own statements mean that neither side had any strokes of brilliance or made any major errors. Despite the fact that I believe the GOP map was the most fair, everyone agrees that the new map provides more competitive districts than the map of the last decade.”


9. A new model for the Chief Justice

Many politicos chuckled in December when Chief Justice Rabner asked both redistricting teams for a list of three candidates for the position of 11th member. “Brilliant” was the common rejoinder as Rabner’s move was digested. An early story line featured questions over Rabner’s tenure and whether a bad choice would bring the wrath of Christie down on his head. But by making the teams accountable for the choice, Rabner took himself out of the story altogether while at the same time avoiding the kind of vitriol still heaved at former Chief Justice Deborah Poritz for her choice of Princeton Professor Larry Bartels a decade ago. Republicans think Bartels gave them the shaft, and have never forgiven Poritz for the choice. By allowing the teams to pick, Rabner can never be second-guessed.

 

10. Republican audible

Democrats say a subtle shift in the Republican playbook made things a lot closer than they could have been down the stretch. The GOP began the process by arguing that minorities were entitled to more representation in the state Legislature and only by increasing the number of majority minority districts would that be achieved. Democrats scoffed at the notion that the Republican Party had become the advocate of the disenfranchised minority voter and pointed to the party’s demographics – only one Republican minority member in the state Senate – to prove their point. But somewhere between the 10th and 11th hour, Democrats say, the debate shifted to the need for competitive districts, an argument some think could have won the day.

“I think if they had pushed that message all along, we could have been in trouble,” said one Democratic source, adding that a push for competitive districts could have given the GOP the moral high ground from the start. 

GOP Commission Chairman Jay Webber showed the strength of the argument at the final gathering of the commission when he accused Rosenthal of using circular logic in declaring that the state should have a Democratic map because it is a Democratic state. “Give us a chance,” Webber entreated. Let the people decide whether it’s truly a Democratic state, was Webber’s argument, and from the cheap seats, the logic was hard to argue with.

 

Redistricting MVP: Two Democrats tell PolitickerNJ that this award is a no-brainer. Attorney Bill Castner was far and away the most valuable player on the Democratic team as the former Chief Counsel to Gov. Jon Corzine kept members focused on the big picture. One Democrat said Castner had an incredible grasp of the nuances of the decennial event and was a big reason the commission that was called “rag-tag” going into the process came out with a W.

Runner-up: Michael Muller, who flew under the media’s radar for much of the event, but one Democrat said he was integral to the success of the team.

 

Comic relief: Hilarious imposter Twitter accounts for Sweeney (“OMG @AssemblymanWiz just called Linda Greenstein on speaker phone and told her we’d put her in the Trenton district w Turner #aprilfools”) and Codey (“Oh no! I heard 11 sets of footsteps outside my house. They’re actually going chase me out of here with torches and pitchforks. Egads!”). Priceless.

Redistricting postmortem: 10 takeaways