Latinos are nearly 20 percent of New Jersey’s population, but a mere six percent of the state legislature.
This weekend, that playing field may change for Hispanics, or stay the same -- for at least a decade.
That is when an 11-member commission working on redrawing the state’s legislative districts is expected to decide on the new legislative map. The commission is made up of five Democrats, five Republicans, and a neutral tie-breaker, in this case a professor from Rutgers University.
The process, which usually is contentious in New Jersey and elsewhere, is being particularly closely watched by Hispanics, who say that they have been ill-served by redistricting efforts in the past.
“In 2001 we had six Latinos in the Assembly, in 2011 we have six Latinos in the Assembly,” said Martin Perez, president of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey, whose members testified at several of the redistricting public hearings. "Redistricting in 2001 translated into zero progress for Hispanics in New Jersey. We need a different strategy.”
New Jersey, one of the first states to receive Census 2010 data about its population and one of the few to have elections this November, is among the first states to redraw its legislative map. Other states drawing legislative maps on an accelerated schedule because of fall elections include Virginia, Mississippi and Louisiana.
“It puts us under more pressure as a state to get this whole process taken care of,” said Jackie Cornell-Bechelli, the political and legislative director for New Jersey Citizen Action, which has testified at the redistricting hearings. “Other states have more flexibility. Being first does influence [nationally], in redistricting and all parts of politics, states like New Jersey and Virginia are always looked at as thermometers of the country.”
Legislative districts are redrawn every 10 years following the release of the decennial U.S. Census.
One of the pivotal debates in New Jersey, where Hispanics are the largest minority group, having soared to 18 percent of the population from 13 percent in the 2000 Census, is whether concentrate Hispanics in one district – a practice called “packing” – or whether to spread them over several voting districts, which some call “cracking,” arguing that it dilutes their clout at the polls.
Republicans are said to favor “packing,” supposedly because it keeps some predominantly non-Hispanic white, GOP areas theirs to win.
Republicans won't formally say that they support packing, but they brought in packing expert Benjamin Ginsberg.
Democrats and political watchers say there's no question that packing is being pursued.
"It's a national strategy," said senior political analyst David A. Bositis at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C., in an interview with The Associated Press earlier this year. "Democrats want to spread out minorities. Republicans want to create white districts, or ones with a small enough minority population that it won't have an effect on the vote."
Democrats are said to favor spreading Hispanic populations over various districts, purportedly to ensure that the group – which tends to vote Democratic – bolsters their chances of winning in those areas.
"The trick Democrats pulled last time was getting [the deciding commission member] to dilute the Latino districts so their white representatives could continue to get elected," Ginsberg said to The Associated Press.
But more Hispanic leaders are questioning the Democratic strategy, saying that it has benefitted non-Hispanic white incumbents, and done little or nothing to help increase the number of Hispanics in the legislature.
“Our numbers have grown in the population,” said Perez, “but what this has resulted in is that there are more of us out there to vote for the white incumbent. These political leaders are not supporting the idea of Hispanics being elected to represent Hispanics.”
In New Jersey, Republicans have formed an unusually tight alliance with some Latinos, who surpassed African Americans as the state's largest minority group, as both groups look for a map that offers a more competitive edge.
Blacks, who are slightly more than 13 percent of the population, make up 13 percent of state legislators.
The redistricting committee will hold a final public hearing on Sunday at the statehouse in Trenton; the public is expected to weigh in on the final map, said Cornell-Bechelli.
“It’s not much time the public has to see and speak about the final map,” she said. “It could literally be minutes.”
The key to improving political representation for Hispanics – and all groups, actually – is build momentum for candidates at the local level, said Cornell-Bechelli.
“Redistricting is just a part of” improving representation, she said. “It’s getting people involved, bringing them together and seeing how they can get Latinos elected and get legislative experience. It’s very difficult to run for the state Senate or Assembly and win out of nowhere, without prior experience.”