By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
hochman@montclairlocal.news

Update, Dec. 22: The New Jersey Congressional Redistricting Commission has voted for a map advanced by Democrats, putting more of Montclair into the 11th District, shifting some of it from the 10th.

The New Jersey Congressional Redistricting Commission is set to meet Wednesday — and the decisions it makes will determine whether Montclair has one representative in Congress or two for the next decade.

The commission expects to vote on its new map of congressional districts, though those maps haven’t yet been presented to the public and it formally has until Jan. 18 to make its decision. Over the course of nine meetings from October through early this month, it heard testimony from individuals around the state concerned with the political and practical ramifications of a redrawn map, while discussions on the specific lines continued behind closed doors.

Among the issues behind considered: Whether Montclair should remain split between the decidedly Democratic 10th Congressional District (currently represented by Democrat Donald Payne Jr.) and the once-red-now-purple 11th District (currently represented by Montclair resident and Democrat Mikie Sherrill).

The 10th includes the southern portion of Montclair — with the township’s largest Black and brown communities — along with portions of Essex, Hudson and Union counties, including all of Orange and Newark. The 11th — a majority-white distrct, and one of the wealthiest in the country — includes a portion of northern Montclair, plus sections of Essex, Morris, Passaic and Sussex counties.

And a discussion is beginning to bubble up among some political insiders — keeping Montclair split, but changing the dividing line. In that scenario, territory more or less lining up with Montclair’s Fourth Ward would be in the 10th. The rest would be in the 11th.

“Montclair has benefited from having two members of Congress ostensibly representing it,” Brendan Gill, a county commissioner who also chairs Montclair’s Democratic Committee, told Montclair Local Wednesday. Gill, a political strategist, has also worked on Sherrill’s campaigns. “Just as a general matter, yes, when these lines are drawn within a town, both members [of Congress] are going to do what they can to help this community. I think that’s a big value added to the township.”

It’s been three decades years since Montclair was under the representation of just one Congress member — the township was previously split between the 8th Congressional District (under Rep. Bill Pascrell) and the 10th. Proponents of a consolidation under one district argue Montclair, as a township, is essentially one “community of interest” — and note redistricting officials are meant to be reluctant to split up political units, like municipalities.

Some opponents — including Montclair’s Imani Oakley, who is challenging Payne in next year’s primary race — argue putting all of Montclair in the 11th would undermine Black representation in Montclair. Payne’s 10th district is a majority Black area, and Oakley has argued southern Montclair residents’ voices would be drowned out if they were lumped in with voters in the 11th. There, 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. Several speakers at a recent redistricting hearing in Essex County made versions of the same argument.

Gill, for his part, argues keeping the Fourth Ward with Payne’s district but moving more territory to the 11th is one way to protect the interests of minority voters — “but putting my Democratic municipal chair hat on … at the same time, we want to maximize the representation and the potential impact that the township could have on the development of the next congressional map, and the town’s impact on national politics.”

Oakley told Montclair Local Tuesday by email that keeping the Fourth Ward of Montclair in the 10th District “is better than moving the entire town into the 11th district, as at least the core of Montclair’s historically Black neighborhood is kept together with other similar communities.”

But a large Black population in Montclair’s Third District, she said, would still be disenfranchised — “and their proposed inclusion into the 11th continues to raise questions as to why there is such a focus from political operatives on redistricting Montclair.”

She noted there are other proposals that don’t involve any change to Montclair.

“I’m not sure what the motivations are for this new proposed split. What I do find interesting is that while my campaign has been working on this issue for months, all of a sudden at the final hour, Montclair officials and operatives have come out to stump for Donald Payne Jr., who hasn’t lifted a finger to protect Black voters,” she wrote. “Their support rings of a self-serving ambition to rise.”

The redistricting commission isn’t meant to favor individual political leaders or parties in its map-drawing — in principle, an exercise to balance out population counts after a new Census while considering issues such as the cohesiveness of communities of interest and on-the-ground geography. But in practice, ever redistricting always involves behind-the-scenes deal-making between the commission’s six Democrats and six Republicans. An independent chairperson breaks a tie.

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)

Moving overwhelmingly Democratic-voting Montclair to one political district could help shore up support for Sherill in the 2022 election, and give a leg up to other Democrats who eventually seek to succeed her. The 11th had traditionally been a Republican stronghold, represented by the GOP’s Rodney Frelinghuysen from 1995 to January 2019. But in 2018, Sherrill beat out Republican Jay Webber in the race to succeed him, making her the first Democrat to represent the 11th since 1984.

For Democrats, that could be more palatable than another population-balancing possibility discussed in an InsiderNJ piece this weekend — pulling Millburn from Democrat Tom Malinowski’s 7th District, and costing him its reliable Democratic support. Both the 7th and the 11th could easily see strong challenges from Republicans in the 2022 election.

Payne told InsiderNJ he was “amenable to helping both of my colleagues” — Malinowski  and Sherrill. He said he’d prefer to hold on to a 10th district constituted as it currently is, but “I could concede a bit more to Mikie Sherrill; possibly I have enough of Montclair to concede a portion.”

But he said that’s one dependent on condition — that he retain the Fourth Ward.

Marcia Marley, president of the liberal BlueWaveNJ lobbying group, had given testimony at redistricting commission hearings arguing there’s value to nurturing and protecting female leadership in New Jersey. As things stand now, Sherrill is one of just two female members of New Jersey’s 12-member congressional delegation.

But she told Montclair Local Tuesday she and BlueWaveNJ didn’t have a position on whether or how Montclair, specifically, should be split. She said it’s reasonable to consider the will of a racial community of interest, as well as the preference for keeping a town together in one district.

Her bigger concern, she said, is any deal-making that makes districts more competitive for Republicans who’ve seen losses over the last decade at the ballot box in the time since 2012, when New Jersey lost a congressional seat, prompting significant changes to the map at the time.

After the 2012 elections, Republicans and Democrats each held six of the 12 seats New Jersey retained. Democrats lost one overall, as the state shifted from 13 to 12 districts. But Democrats now have a 10-2 majority, and Marley said she doesn’t want to see the map slanted to give Republicans power that voters took away.

“For me, it’s a question of fairness, and how you define fairness,” she said.

Mark Lurinsky, a BlueWaveNJ board member, had written to Montclair Local earlier this fall to argue the township is best served by being in a single district — saying the township is best thought of as a single community, and can have a powerful political voice as such.

He told Montclair Local Wednesday “I don’t have a decided opinion,” but said he still favored putting Montclair all in one district. The contrast between demographics in the northern and southern ends of town, he said, was one he “thought had been way too overblown.” Lurinsky stressed he was speaking for himself, not for BlueWaveNJ.

The suggestion of a still-but-differently-split Montclair could offer another advantage to Sherrill — she lives in the 10th district, on South Mountain Avenue. She moved to a rental in the 11th District after winning her seat, but moved back in 2019, saying she’d had difficulty selling her home and her one-year rental lease was up. At the time, she described the move back as temporary.

Members of Congress don’t have to live in their districts, though living outside of them can at times sit poorly with voters or give an opponent an avenue of attack. Gill said to his mind, “living literally a few streets over, is not a political liability for the congresswoman.”

Putting Montclair entirely in the 11th would bump Oakley out of the 10th, where she plans to challenge Payne, but she’s said that wouldn’t deter her from running.

Montclair Local left messages with Payne’s and Sherrill’s offices Tuesday and is awaiting responses.

To keep populations in districts balanced, the redistricting commission will need to account for growth of more than 11% in the 10th Congressional District. In the same time, the 11th grew by just 4%.

Oakley planned to hold a press conference Wednesday morning, before the redistricting commissioner’s “vocally oppose the New Jersey Redistricting Commission’s lack of transparency and the undemocratic way in which they are deciding the state’s new congressional map,” her office said in an announcement.

“During the redistricting process, almost two dozen organizations and multiple members of the public asked the commission to publish map proposals publicly and allow for input before a final vote. The commission has decided to ignore these requests,” it said. “Oakley aims to use the press conference to highlight how the commission’s behavior follows the established pattern of political corruption, backroom dealing, and opacity that have undermined democracy in New Jersey.”

The commission’s decision on its map will be in effect for the next 10 years, until the next Census prompts the process to start over again.

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