In another sign that gerrymandering has become a potent political issue, top Democratic lawmakers in New Jersey were forced over the weekend to spike a proposed constitutional amendment that was sold as redistricting reform but would have entrenched their party’s power in Trenton.
The plan faced nearly unanimous opposition across the political spectrum, and from good-government lobbies, national Democratic figures, and other interests. It had been scheduled for a vote Monday afternoon in both chambers of the state Legislature.
By the time Democratic leaders announced Saturday night that they were pulling the measure, the chorus of detractors had grown to include a number of rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers.
Even the No. 2 Senate Democrat, Loretta Weinberg of Bergen County, expressed some hesitation. “There’s something in this bill to affront almost everybody,” she told WNYC hours before the bill was buried. “That’s not always easy to do. But, apparently, that’s what we managed to do.”
The measure, which had been fast-tracked through the Legislature, would have imposed Democrats’ advantage in statewide elections for president, U.S. Senate, and governor onto local legislative districts. Mapmakers in 2021 would have been forced to redraw the state’s 40 districts in a way that would have ensured no more than 15 of them leaned Republican.
Proponents of the proposal said it would ensure legislative district maps that reflect the will of the voters, but its army of critics said it was a thinly disguised attempt to gerrymander New Jersey in Democrats’ favor.
The development was a political win for Gov. Murphy, a Democrat, who has clashed with Senate President Stephen Sweeney and other Democratic lawmakers and struggled to win their support for some of the top items on his progressive agenda, such as raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. The governor vocally opposed the redistricting measure, which would have diminished the power of one of his chief allies, state party Chairman John Currie, in the redistricting process.
The redistricting amendment would have instead increased the role of lawmakers in the bipartisan commission that redraws the state’s legislative map every 10 years to account for changes in population reflected in the census.
Lawmakers had hoped to put the amendment on the ballot in November 2019, but that now seems highly unlikely.
In separate statements, Sweeney (D., Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D., Middlesex) said they would review the input received from the public and look to potentially change their proposal.
“I want to integrate some of the valuable input received to help create a better measure and improve the redistricting process overall,” Coughlin said in his statement.
Analysts of New Jersey politics say that the leaders misjudged how much the Democratic base has come to care about the issue of gerrymandering. Many activists on the party’s left, energized by opposition to President Trump, loathed what they saw as a power grab.
Redistricting reform advocates celebrated the proposal’s apparent death but said they hoped lawmakers would now consider other ways to improve the state’s process of drawing political boundaries.
“We’re excited, but the work’s not done,” said Helen Kioukis, a staffer at the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of New Jersey. “We want to continue the conversation, and we want there to be a question on the November 2019 ballot that will give us a new district map that fairly represents everyone.”