Congressman Donald M. Payne Jr. and Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill (House.gov)

By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
hochman@montclairlocal.news

More of Montclair will move into the 11th Congressional District represented by Democrat Mikie Sherrill under a map approved by the New Jersey Congressional Redistricting Commission last month.

The new map, in effect for the next decade, leaves the southeast portion of Montclair — by and large, the township’s Fourth Ward, where its greatest concentrations of Black and brown residents live — in the majority-Black 10th District, represented by Democrat Donald Payne.

But Payne cedes territory in Montclair beyond that to Sherrill, part of a reconfiguration that puts her in much better position for reelection this year. Before the change, Montclair had a simpler north-south split — with most areas north of Watchung Avenue in NJ-11, and areas south of it in NJ-10 (with just a few blocks north of Watchung on the east side of town jutting into NJ-11).

The new congressional district borders don’t line up exactly with the split between the Fourth Ward and its neighboring Second and Third Wards, though they’re very close. Some streets in the northern end of the Fourth Ward will be in NJ-11, and some streets near Essex Park, in the Second Ward, will be in NJ-10. A few streets on the western end of the Fourth Ward, where it borders the Third, will be in NJ-11 as well.

The 11th District had once been solidly Republican territory, but has leaned blue in recent years, demonstrated most significantly in 2018 when Sherrill beat Republican Jay Webber in the race to succeed longtime GOP Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen. The new map gives her further Democratic support across several towns.

U.S. Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr. represents the 10th Congressional District, which now includes most of the area of the Fourth Ward of Montclair. Rep. Mikie Sherrill represents the 11th, which includes the remainder of Montclair. (NJ Redistricting Commission Maps)

The reconfiguration also moves Sherrill into the district she represents. She owns a house in the current 10th District (in the Third Ward), but rented a home for a time in the 11th. She moved back to the home she owns in 2019, saying she’d had difficulty selling it and that her one-year rental lease was up, but described the move as temporary at the time.

The New Jersey Congressional Redistricting Commission didn’t release maps proposed by its Democratic and Republican delegations, each with six members, ahead of a vote on Wednesday, Dec. 22, prompting criticisms about transparency from parties including Montclair resident Imani Oakley, a Democrat challenging Payne in this year’s primary.

The public got its first look at the proposed maps when versions were posted online that morning by Politico NJ reporter Matt Friedman, and just ahead of the vote by the New Jersey Globe. The adopted map has since been posted online by the Redistricting Commission as well.

Former Supreme Court Justice John E. Wallace, the tiebreaker vote between the two party delegations, said he chose the Democratic map this year only because a decade ago New Jersey went with a GOP-proposed map. The map will remain in effect for the next decade, until population counts in the 2030 Census prompt the next round of changes.

After the 2012 elections, Republicans and Democrats each held six of the 12 seats New Jersey retained in Congress. Democrats lost one district overall that year, as the state shifted from 13 to 12 districts due to population counts. But Democrats now have a 10-2 majority, and Republicans had sought to make more districts competitive for their candidates this year.

Maps from both delegations, Wallace said Dec. 22, met requirements to balance population, to respect the Voting Rights Act and to prioritize inclusion of minority-majority districts. They both kept districts regularly shaped and avoided county and town splits when possible, he said.

Ultimately, he found the Democrats’ map met a better standard of “partisan fairness,” but he said since the delegations didn’t test for that in their submissions to his office, he didn’t consider it a factor in his decision.

“The chairs and their delegations are outstanding, and clearly represented the interests of New Jersey and their respective parties,” Wallace said.

The delegations spent “days and evenings meeting with my teams to improve their respective map, and to convince me their map was the better of the two,” he said. Every tweak prompted others, but both maps were viable and constitutional, he said.

The commission held 10 public hearings to get input from New Jersey residents, and more than 200 people testified, with some presenting their own suggestions for maps.

Sherrill’s 11th District gains Belleville from the 8th; Glen Ridge, Maplewood and South Orange from the 10th, and Millburn and Dover from the 7th. It loses Caldwell, Essex Fells, Verona and all of West Orange to Payne’s 10th district.

Cranford, Garwood, Kenilworth and all of Union Township goes into the 10th District as well, moving out of the 7th District.

The changes make Democrat Tom Malinowski, who has represented the 7th since 2018, more vulnerable to a Republican challenger in the coming election.

Janice Fuller, the Democrats’ redistricting chair, said she believed her contingent’s victorious map represents the diversity of the state “not just for the next election, but the next decade.” It limited in-town district splits like those in Montclair to 14 statewide, and maintained all existing minority-majority districts, she said.

Republican delegation chair Doug Steinhart, by contrast, called the selection of the Democrats’ map part of a process that “disenfranchises most of the state’s voting population.” He noted the Republicans’ proposal kept 85% of residents in their current districts.

“To be candid, we’re disappointed in the final result,” he said.

During the hearings and discussions leading up to the vote, multiple possibilities had been discussed for Montclair, including moving all of it into the 11th. That, too, would have shored up support for Democrats like Sherrill in her district.

Oakley and several speakers at a recent Redistricting Commission hearing objected to that idea, saying it would undercut Black representation in Montclair’s South End.

In the 10th District, southern Montclair residents vote with a majority Black population. But the 11th, as it’s been constituted for the last decade, is both majority white and one of the wealthiest in the nation; opponents of putting Montclair entirely in the 11th argued Black voters’ voices would be drowned out in that environment. 

People identified as Black or African American make up just over 33,000 of a total population of more than 717,000 people in the current 11th, according to the most recent American Community Survey estimates.

Oakley on Dec. 22 called the decision to keep the Fourth Ward in the 10th District a victory, but she questioned the motivations of political insiders who’d started to talk about the idea publicly. And she said a large Black population in Montclair’s Third Ward, in the southwest part of the township, would still lose representation.

“Still, many communities of color now find themselves split off from their larger communities of interest, and it is deeply unfortunate that the Democratic machine — including my opponent, Donald Payne Jr. — were so willing to throw Black and brown voters under the bus in the name of personal political gain,” she said.

She also criticized the map for not adding to the total number of minority-majority districts in the state. Both parties’ maps, like the one being replaced, have five such districts.

County Commissioner Brendan Gill, a political strategist who has worked with Sherrill’s last two campaigns, told Montclair Local prior to the vote that the idea of a shifted dividing line that kept the Fourth Ward in Payne’s 10th District could help 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.” He argued it’s good for two members of Congress to hear regularly from Montclair voters.

Payne recently told InsiderNJ he was “amenable to helping both of my colleagues” — Malinowski and Sherrill. He said he’d prefer to hold onto a 10th District constituted as it has been, but “I could concede a bit more to Mikie Sherrill; possibly I have enough of Montclair to concede a portion.” He said that’s dependent on one condition — that he retain the Fourth Ward.

Payne’s office hasn’t returned messages seeking comment on the redistricting process. Sherrill, in an email to Montclair Local the day after the redistricting vote, said she’d remain committed to all the people of her district “both current and new.”

“Our mission is to make New Jersey more affordable, to strengthen our democracy, and to build a better future for our state. I am incredibly excited to continue our work and deliver for North Jersey,” Sherrill said. She didn’t specifically address impacts on Montclair.

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 Marley told Montclair Local the day before the redistricting vote that 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, would have been with deal-making that makes districts more competitive for Republicans who’d seen losses over the last decade at the ballot box. “For me, it’s a question of fairness, and how you define fairness,” she said.

Mark Lurinsky, a BlueWaveNJ board member (though he stressed he only spoke for himself), 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, too, testified at commission hearings.

Other significant changes to the map shore up support for Democratic Reps. Andy Kim and Josh Gottheimer. They put both Kim and Republican Rep. Christopher Smith in the 3rd District, but Smith will next run in the 4th, where many of the communities he’s long represented will now be situated.

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