Political Parties Are Not the Only Winners and Losers in Redistricting

Next month, after we learn what New Jersey’s 40 Legislative districts will look like when the State Apportionment Commission completes its work, we also will get a sense of which political party fares better under the new map.

But the biggest winners in the redistricting process – at both the Legislative and Congressional levels – sometimes are not the parties themselves, but individual lawmakers.

That’s what resulted from the redistricting that took place after the 1990 Census – and it could happen again this time around. The scenarios are somewhat similar.

On the federal level, New Jersey once again is losing a Congressional seat. On the state level, as was the case after the 1990 Census, the Legislature is controlled by the Democratic Party. Unlike today, however, in 1990 the state had a Democratic Governor, Jim Florio. But by the time redistricting took place, there was a strong anti-Democrat sentiment throughout the state due to tax increases enacted early in Florio’s term.

So what happened in the redistricting process two decades ago?

Frank Pallone appeared to be the odd man out as the state squeezed 14 Congressional districts into thirteen. He had the least seniority of any member of New Jersey’s Congressional delegation. He also was somewhat of a maverick whose actions did not always sit well with his Democratic colleagues, who supported a map that placed Pallone in the same district as another Democrat – Bernie Dwyer, a popular and longtime Congressman from Middlesex County.

Bill Dowd, who was Monmouth County Republican Chairman at the time, summed up the situation in his testimony before the Legislative Apportionment Commission. According to The New York Times, Dowd told the panel: “I’d like to see Mr. Pallone defeated. But apparently I don’t want to see him defeated as much as the Democrats do.”

Although Dwyer ultimately decided to retire rather than seek re-election, Pallone faced strong opposition in the Democratic primary from State Senator Bob Smith, who at the time was Middlesex County Democratic Chairman.

But Pallone weathered the storm, won the primary and the general election, and has been re-elected 10 more times. A year ago, Politico reported that he had the largest war chest of any member of the House – $3.9 million.

Last year, Pallone fended off a Tea Party challenger in a difficult year for Democrats. He is expected to someday be a candidate for U.S. Senate. In fact, he turned down an offer to be the Democratic Party’s Senate candidate in 2002 when Senator Robert Torricelli dropped out of the race.

That same redistricting process in the early 1990s also has had long-term consequences for New Jersey because of what happened with Frank Guarini, who was a seven-term Congressman from Hudson County.

During Guarini’s time in Congress, the demographics of his district – and the state as a whole – had changed. The Hispanic population had grown larger and more influential. Before the new lines were drawn, then-State Senator Bob Menendez had hinted he might challenge Guarini. The decision on whether to run became easier once the new map was unveiled. The new district stretched from Hudson County into Newark and Elizabeth and then down the Arthur Kill to Perth Amboy, making it about 43 percent Hispanic.

Like Dwyer, Guarini also opted to retire.

Menendez won the seat easily, and was re-elected six times. In Congress, he became Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, making him the third -highest ranking Democrat in the House.

He moved up to the Senate in 2005, when he was appointed to fill the seat vacated by Jon Corzine, who had just been elected Governor. Menendez was elected to the Senate in 2006 by a comfortable margin despite a very aggressive campaign that was waged by Tom Kean Jr. and the Republican Party.

As in the House, Menendez has emerged as a leader in the Senate, heading the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

On the state level, after the 1990 Census, Democrats had majorities in both Houses and a member of their party sitting in the Governor’s Office. Nevertheless, the Legislative map that won approval was more favorable to the Republican Party.

Among the problems the map posed for Democrats was the 19th Legislative District in Middlesex County. Under the new map, Carteret became part of the district, leaving three Democrats to fight over two Assembly seats.

Two of those Democrats – Tom Deverin and George Otlowksi — were longtime legislators. Just as with Congress, the odd man out was the lawmaker with the least seniority. And that person was a first-term Assemblyman named Jim McGreevey.

Like Frank Pallone, McGreevey also had angered some members of his own party. But unlike Pallone, he chose not to get involved in a contested primary. Instead, he saw a better opportunity for his political future back home in Woodbridge, where the Mayor’s Office was up for election and the incumbent Mayor was under indictment.

McGreevey was one of four candidates who ran for Woodbridge Mayor in 1991. He received just 34 percent of the vote, but that was enough for him to win and launch a successful career as a mayor.

Using the Mayor’s Office as a springboard, McGreevey returned to the Legislature in 1994 as a State Senator, built a statewide reputation and won the Democratic Party’s nomination for Governor in 1997. He came extremely close to upsetting Christine Todd Whitman in the 1997 Governor’s race. Four years later, he defeated Brett Schundler and became the state’s youngest governor.

Will the current redistricting processes produce similar results to what transpired after the 1990 Census?

We are unlikely to know the answer for several years. Frank Pallone did not build his huge war chest overnight. Bob Menendez was tagged as a rising young star when he first ran for Congress, but it took time before we saw where his career was heading. As for Jim McGreevey: It was 10 years before he got to the Governor’s Office.

What we do know is that redistricting is a very complex process – and it’s a process that is far from perfect.

Perhaps someday we will be able to just feed all of the necessary demographic data into a computer and receive perfectly apportioned districts.

After all, in today’s world, computers can do just about everything — except maybe beat Rush Holt at Jeopardy.

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