Opinion: The Main Obstacle to Fair Representation of Latinos in New Jersey is the Democratic Party

New Jersey, the first state in the nation to redraw its legislative map based on data released by the 2010 Census, has again failed to re-configure boundaries to give its largest and fastest growing minority group, Latinos, a fair shot at being elected to the state legislature.

And once again, the primary obstacle to achieving a fair map for New Jersey’s alarmingly under-represented Latino population was the Democratic Party

The map chosen by the appointed tie-breaker, Rutgers University Professor Alan Rosenthal, continued an anti-democratic tradition of prioritizing the protection of incumbents.

This year the 2010 Census results delivered a new reality to the commission that was charged with redrawing the map: the state's Latino population grew much faster than expected and was already identified as under-represented in the New Jersey legislature when the 2001 map was adopted.

Growing from 13 percent to18 percent of the population over the last 10 years, but without a single increase in state legislative representation, Latinos confronted the commission about the failed redistricting strategies of the 2001 map.

This put Democrats in the hot seat because their map was the 2001 winner, they had promoted it as the map with the best chance of remedying Latino under-representation, and the Latino population boom of the last 10 years was concentrated in "safe" (read: non-competitive) Democratic districts.

So, during this year's redistricting public hearings -- with only six Latinos among 80 Assembly members, and one Latino among 40 Senators -- Latinos complained loudly and clearly that the commission had to re-examine the failed redistricting strategies of the last map, and instead heed the example provided by the 33rd District of Hudson County.

Historically the only majority Latino district in New Jersey, the 33rd District has given New Jersey nearly 40 percent of all (seven of 19, including four Republicans) Latino state legislators ever elected, the only Latino U.S. Senator, the only Latino Speaker of the Assembly, the only Latino county party chairman -- for both the Democratic and Republican parties -- and the only two Latino congressmen, one having previously served in both the state Assembly and Senate.

But, duplicating the success of the 33rd District to achieve fair representation for Latinos would require de-prioritizing incumbency protection by the Democratic members of the commission -- a price they were unwilling to pay.

Members of The Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey asked the commission to build on the successful model of the 33rd District and look for other opportunities to create majority-Latino districts.

The Democratic Party opposed that reasonable request and, as a pretext for protecting entrenched incumbents, waged a disinformation campaign that such a strategy constituted "packing.” But given the dispersion of the Latino community throughout New Jersey and the requirements of maintaining municipal integrity, it is impossible to create a Latino “packed” district.

By contrast, the Republican Party recognized an opportunity to make inroads into the Latino community, was willing to meet and listen, and supported our call for the creation of additional majority Latino districts.

It should be noted that incumbent protection and party dominance have always been the driving forces in New Jersey's legislative redistricting battles. New Jersey's process for drawing 40 new districts every 10 years with the unveiling of new census numbers is mandated by the state Constitution.

Anchored in the two-party paradigm, with five commissioners appointed by each party, there is no representation for unaffiliated or independent voters -- who comprise nearly half, 46 percent, of New Jersey's electorate. Anticipating the inevitable, the Constitution provides for the appointment of an 11th member tie-breaker by the Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court.

The intensely secretive process has evolved to include a series of public hearings throughout the state where testimony is presented by the public and subject to the scrutiny of the commissioners. A period of secret negotiations involving confidential map submissions to the 11th member follows. At the11th hour, the final vote on a new map has, in the main, consisted of the 11th member choosing between the Democrat or Republican map.

The parties' maps this year were polar opposites: The Republican Party presented a map with two majority-Latino districts (33rd and 32nd districts) and redistricted out the current senator of the 35th District, creating the opportunity for the rise from Assembly to senator by a Latina incumbent legislator. This would have created a Latino empowerment corridor extending from Hoboken in Hudson County to North Haledon in Passaic County.

The Democratic Party’s map creates the same opportunity in the 35th District to elect a Latina senator, but dismantled the current Latino majority district (33rd) and moved an incumbent Latina assemblywoman’s home township out of the district. The only majority-Latino district under the democratic map will be the 32nd, currently under the helm of a senior legislator who is a triple-dipping public office holder (senator, mayor and assistant school superintendent).

The net outcome of Professor Alan Rosenthal's tie-breaking decision of supporting the democratic map, was to reduce an already under-represented Latino electorate from six to five Assembly representatives, while adding the possibility of an opportunity to rise for an existing Latina Assembly member.

Professor Rosenthal candidly explained that his vote in favor of the Democratic Party's map would cause “the minimum of disruption,” in other words, incumbent protection prevailed again at the expense of providing an opportunity to remedy Latino voters under-representation.

To have more Latinos in the legislature, “disruption" of the current system is both needed and warranted. Incumbents are not going to volunteer their seats to provide an opportunity for Latinos to fairly select representation of their choice. At a minimum, New Jersey's Latino community must increase the pressure on the political parties to give the line to qualified Latinos or be prepared to force primaries in every possible district.

Additionally, New Jersey's Latino community should build alliances with other similarly situated groups, such as African-Americans and Asian-Americans, to join in the development of a legal strategy that provides a better chance of integrating the New Jersey legislature by moving from multi-member legislative districts, to single-member legislative districts.

We must fight for the creation of two distinct Assembly districts embedded in a single senatorial district.

Latinos must be relentless in ensuring that there will be fair opportunities to elect representatives of the community's choice.

After all, Frederic Douglass' truism of American politics stands: "Power concedes nothing without a demand, it never did and it never will."

Martin Perez, Esq., is president of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey, a statewide umbrella Latino advocacy organization.

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