U.S. Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr. represents the 10th Congressional District, which includes the southern part of Montclair. Rep. Mikie Sherrill represents the 11th, which includes northern Montclair. (House.gov)

By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
hochman@montclairlocal.news

The New Jersey Congressional Redistricting Commission is on the verge of making a decision key to Montclair residents — whether the township will remain split into two congressional districts, each with its own representative, or be consolidated into just one.

No one yet knows how the commission — made up of six Democrats, six Republicans and an independent chairperson — will divide up New Jersey’s map, adjusting for population shifts in the last decade as measured in the 2020 Census. Its decisions will be in effect for the next 10 years, until the next Census prompts the process to start over again.

But to keep populations in districts balanced, they’ll need to account for growth of more than 11% in the 10th Congressional District, which serves the southern portion of Montclair as well as sections of Essex, Hudson and Union counties, including all of Orange and Newark. That might mean shifting southern Montclair into the 11th district, which includes the northern part of town as well as other sections of Essex, Morris, Passaic, and Sussex counties, and which grew by just 4% in the same time.

The current lines have been in place since 2012 (New Jersey lost a seat that year due to population shifts). For the decade prior, northern areas of Montclair were in the 8th District, and the southern part of town was in the 10th, though the dividing line was different than it is now.

The characteristics of the two current districts are markedly different. The 10th has been represented by Democrat Donald Payne Jr. since January of 2013, and was represented by his father for more than two decades prior to that. It’s a majority Black and largely urban district, and has been reliably Democratic for decades.

The 11th had traditionally been a Republican stronghold, represented by the GOP’s Rodney Frelinghuysen from 1995 to January 2019. But in 2018, Democrat Mikie Sherrill beat out Republican Jay Webber in the race to succeed him, making her the first Democrat to represent the 11th since 1984.

It’s a majority white district; people identified as Black or African American make up just over 33,000 of a total population of more than 717,000 people, according to the most recent American Community Survey estimates. It’s also one of the wealthiest congressional districts in the United States.

That means a change in congressional lines could have several implications. Moving more of overwhelmingly Democratic-voting Montclair into the 11th could help protect Sherrill in the 2022 elections and give a leg up to other Democrats who eventually seek to succeed her. Montclair’s largest Black and brown communities are in the southern part of town; they’d be moved into a district where people who share their race represent just a sliver of the overall population.

‘The power of the Black vote’

That’s the change Imani Oakley, a Democrat from Montclair who’s running against Payne in the 2022 primary, has been lobbying against. 

“It all depends on whether New Jersey’s Redistricting Commission wants to respect the power of the Black vote or not,” she said.

In redistricting, the commission is asked to consider communities of interest — people grouped by geography or common concerns that could benefit from being represented by a single Congress member. Oakley, who is Black, argues voters of color in the southern end of Montclair have that now, grouped with more urban areas and more Black voters in the 10th district.

Imani Oakley

“When you look at NJ-11, you have people whose average income is in the six-figure range. That’s not the South End,” she said.

Oakley argues Black voters would be drowned out when asking for their interests to be considered in a much richer, whiter 11th district.

“They’re not going to be listened to, because they’re a minority — and a very small minority,” she said. And when Black voters see their power pulled away, she argued, it makes them deeply distrustful of the electoral system. “It makes folks not believe in democracy. It makes folks not believe in the Democratic Party. It makes them believe the system is rigged against them.”

The change would also have the effect of pulling Oakley, personally, out of the district. Members of Congress don’t need to live in their districts, though doing otherwise is often a political liability. She said she believes Democratic power brokers are looking primarily to bolster Sherrill — and said she’s heard from residents who’ve been recently fed misinformation about the size of Montclair’s Black population or the impact of a change (though Oakley said she couldn’t say who specifically was responsible).

And Oakley said even if Montclair is put entirely in the 11th, she’ll continue her campaign.

“I think it also has to do with protecting Payne,” she said. “I think folks think it will deter me, and it won’t.”

Northern New Jersey’s congressional districts, as of 2013. The New Jersey Congressional Redistricting Commission is holding hearings and considering how districts will next be realigned. (DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR)

‘Packing’ and ‘cracking’

Oakley’s argument is just one way of looking at the issue of race in redistricting, Montclair State University political science professor Brigid Callahan Harrison said. Harrison, who lost her own Democratic primary bid in 2020 in the 2nd Congressional District, had encouraged the Redistricting Commission during a November hearing to create competitive districts

Commission members are supposed to be wary of two problematic practices — “packing” a group (such as members of one race) into just a few districts so that their representation is limited to just those districts’ Congress members, and “cracking” a group by splitting it so thinly across several districts its members’ voices are overwhelmed by others. 

“There’s a school of thought that says by packing Black voters into a district, you are eliminating their ability to be heard in a more competitive and diverse setting — and therefore, they only get representation in a Black district,” she said.

In other words: Under one way of thinking, it might be a good thing for Sherrill or another 11th District representative to hear from more Black voters than they currently do. 

Oakley isn’t alone in looking to protect Black representation. The Redistricting Commission held several hearings beginning in October and wrapping up Dec. 6. At the only in-person meeting in Essex County, on Dec. 5, 34th Legislative District Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake made appeals for transparency, and to the principles of the Voting Rights Act. 

“We know that gerrymandering has worked against Black and brown communities for centuries and is a direct reason why you can clearly see it — disenfranchisement and disinvestment, and different resources coming into one community versus the other communities,” Timberlake said. 

Andrew Smythe told the commission at its Dec. 5 hearing that Black Americans “disproportionately are less likely to have health insurance, are disproportionately going to have more student loan debt and are more targeted by a broken criminal justice system.” But a majority Black district can elect a representative who understands those inequities, he said.

“You must allow black constituents of NJ-10 to maintain the power they have as participants in a representative democracy,” Smythe said. “Transferring them into a different district not only deters their voting power as a district, but it will disenfranchise constituents who are losing their power as a majority block.”

And Montclair resident Linda Lis, in a statement read by Oakley’s press secretary, Roman Broszkowski, said moving parts of Montclair into the 11th “would deprive voters of color of that chance of representation by completely diluting their electoral power.” She said the possible move was “rooted in the historically racist attitudes New Jersey politicians have held about black voters.”

“Simply put, this is the New Jersey political machine acting like it always does try to protect politically entrenched incumbents at the expense of communities of color and progressive organizers,” she said. “I’m sorry that white incumbents are vulnerable. Maybe they should spend their time in office doing something worth our votes instead of manipulating the maps to save themselves. Voters of color are not political pawns to be used as vote spigots.”

One town, one district?

But race isn’t the only criterion for a community of interest, Mark Lurinsky, a longtime resident of Montclair and a board member of the progressive BlueWaveNJ advocacy group, said. He also recently testified at a hearing of the New Jersey Congressional Redistricting Commission, but in favor of putting Montclair into a single district.

The 10th District, he said, is already a “packed one.” But even if it loses the residents of southern Montclair, its own Black vote will remain powerful. The most recent American Community Survey counts nearly 388,000 Black voters in a district of about 762,000 people overall; there are about 237,000 white voters in the 10th. Hispanic or Latino voters (who may be of any race) number about 153,000.

“I think about these things, being in a 36-year interracial marriage,” Lurinsky said. “If you think about it, isn’t this sort of a segregationist logic, that you can have influence only in your own lane? I think it’s very shortsighted.”

Harrison made a similar point. There’s increasing evidence, she said, that when redistricting officials create minority-majority district’s like Payne’s but minority populations also spill over into neighboring, majority-white districts, the chances of electing Black, Asian Latino or other minority candidates in those majority-white areas grow.

She said, though, with a popular and well-supported incumbent already in the 11th, that’s not likely to happen in the short term.

Lurinsky said Montclair residents have enough in common that they can have a cohesive voice and pick a representative together. All of Montclair is worried about flooding (as suffered after Ida), about quality education, about mass transit, he said.

Montclair may see economic and racial divides by geography, Lurinsky said, but it also made strides toward equalizing access to educational resources with its magnet school system. He suggested that it could even be a model for other communities, with a single, strong leader representing all of the township in Congress. 

Montclair is one of 15 municipalities throughout the state with split representation. Harrison said the Redistricting Commission is supposed to, when possible, avoid those situations — to avoid dividing political units (like a township). It still happens because that concern has to be balanced against the grouping of other communities of interest, against population size and against geographic continuity of a district.

“In my mind, it does make sense [to put Montclair in a single district] because of the standard of keeping a political unit whole,” she said. 

It’s also not the only 10th District municipality currently split between districts. Parts of Bloomfield and West Orange are in the 11th. Parts of Newark, Bayonne and Jersey City are in the 8th.

Harrison said the arguments are complex, and she acknowledged, “I’m obviously a Caucasian professor, coming at it from a certain perspective. I think there is room to hear about the impact of packing and cracking from more people.”

“Is there something unique about living in south Montclair that should have a voice and be heard in the rest of a district? Does it increase the ability of Black voters to have a say in the life of their town, in their district, in their nation?” she asked. “There are a number of ways of thinking about this.”

Payne and Sherrill have not yet responded to requests for comment.

— Includes reporting by Talia Wiener

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