TRENTON – Among the things already clear after less than one hour of testimony as New Jersey begins its congressional redistricting effort: There are many priorities to consider when redrawing the political map, and it’s virtually impossible to satisfy all of them.

Matt Dragon, a progressive activist from West Orange, told the Redistricting Commission at its Saturday hearing that there need to be clear, nonpartisan standards for line drawing – with the public knowing in advance which take priority.

Among the rules he’d prioritize: “Planned districts must explicitly not be allowed to favor or protect incumbents, candidates or political parties.”

But elsewhere at the same hearing, Democrats made pitches to specifically favor certain incumbents.

Marcia Marley, president of BlueWaveNJ, said it’s important to protect the state’s two congresswomen, Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman and Rep. Mikie Sherrill, as women representatives have been historically rare in New Jersey. And Piscataway Mayor Brian Wahler specifically asked that his township remain in Rep. Frank Pallone’s district.

“He has generations of relationships here in Middlesex County, and the continuity of representation to our residents, as well as Middlesex County as a whole,” Wahler said.

Among the other repeatedly heard messages at the hearing: Don’t draw a map that protects Republicans just because they’ve been less successful in House elections lately. Marley said New Jersey is the only Democratic state with so many competitive districts.

“The bottom line is that the 2022 redistricting process is starting with districts that are clearly to Republicans’ advantage,” Marley said.

New Jersey currently has 10 Democrats and two Republicans in the House delegation – but the last decade started with a 6 to 6 split, before Democrats flipped more suburban districts.

Another common refrain was to reduce the number of municipalities split between districts. Thirty-seven cities and towns are currently divided between more than one congressional district, which is a side effect of a rule that districts must have exactly the same number of people, even though the census was a snapshot in time that wasn’t 100% accurate.

But reuniting them in one district isn’t always easy, as evidenced by competing viewpoints on what to do with Montclair in Essex County – currently split between the 10th District of Rep. Donald Payne and the 11th District, represented by Sherrill.

Mark Lurinsky says Montclair has magnet schools, rather than neighborhood ones, as a way to address segregation – so it makes sense to put it entirely into the 11th District, rather than keep splitting some into the 10th.

“Allowing more of our minority citizens to exercise greater voting power in districts where they are not currently so concentrated,” Lurinsky said.

Imani Oakley, who plans to challenge Payne in the majority-Black 10th, objects to having her majority-Black neighborhood redistricted into a district dominated by the suburbs of Morris County. She said Montclair and Mendham have little in common.

“We are not political pawns to be moved around on a map,” Oakley said. “We are people who deserve representation.”

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There were a lot of complaints and suggestions about the redistricting process. Liz Glynn, director of organizing for New Jersey Citizen Action, said people should be given the opportunity to submit suggested maps.

“There’s several different mapmaking programs now available to the general public that allow them to create and submit their own maps during a process that is so impactful towards all of our lives,” Glynn said.

The commission’s Democratic co-chairwoman, Janice Fuller, said maps can be submitted online through the panel’s website. However, that site doesn’t have an app on it that would allow people to create maps there directly.

The Redistricting Commission was scheduled to hold its second public hearing at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Ocean County College in Toms River, but it was postponed because of the storm. The next meeting is now another online public hearing Saturday.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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