Controversial redistricting bill pulled from legislative vote after wave of criticism

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

Not much happens on a Saturday night in state government, but this past Saturday night Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin pulled the plug on their controversial redistricting plan.

“We pulled the bill, as I said, we listened to the people who testified at the hearing and we want to make sure if we do the bill we include some of the stuff that they had proposed. For right now, I thought it was the best thing to do to take it down, so we’re not going to consider it,” Coughlin said.

The plan would have asked voters to approve a constitutional amendment changing the composition of the commission that redraws legislative districts. Critics said it would have cemented Democratic control for years to come. Good government groups, mainly on the left but also on the right, came out strongly against the plan. It even got national attention.

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder came out against it in his role as a watchdog over gerrymandering at a time when Republicans are being criticized for power plays in places like Wisconsin and Michigan. The New York Times editorialized over the weekend that “New Jersey Democrats Play Power Games Too.

“I think the sponsors of this bill just totally misread the opposition to it. Not only did the opposition come from nonpartisan groups like folks like me, but also from within their own ranks. I thought that they thought that the folks that were against this on the Democratic side were just allies of Phil Murphy and this was an intra-party battle. What they found was these were real grassroots, activists groups who just said we’re Democrats, we don’t have to win like this. In fact, this is the type of thing we’re fighting against nationwide,” said Monmouth University Polling Institute Director Patrick Murray.

Gov. Phil Murphy was another opponent of the plan. He, too, portrayed it as a power grab by legislative leaders cooked up in a back room. Calling off the vote was the right thing to do, he said.

“I’m completely of the opinion that the voters ought to pick the legislators, and the legislators shouldn’t be picking the voters, and that’s what the plan that was just pulled back would have done,” Murphy said.

So does he see this as a victory?

“I never took it personally when it was raised, and I don’t take it personally as a victory lap either,” he said.

Republicans see withdrawing the bill as a victory.

“The Democrats with this one-party rule are taking extreme measures and they’re getting push back, and this is across the board. Not only were they not able to do something that was so extreme, because the media pushed back. No one supported it. This one-party rule is dangerous to the people of New Jersey, and New Jersey pushed back,” said Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick.

The Democratic sponsors of the measure took this new setback in stride.

“We’ve been working on this for several years. There were a number of groups that were supportive of the plan three years ago that they came up with certain oppositions. So I remain open minded as I always have been with any legislation that I’ve proposed and we’ll figure that into the mix and we’ll go forward,” said Sen. Nick Scutari.

The Assembly sponsor says a fair legislative map does not mean districts that are all 50-50.

“New Jersey is not a 50-50 state. It’s not today and it wasn’t in the 1980s under Tom Kean, and those maps have been a reflection of the will of those voters,” said Assemblyman Lou Greenwald.

So the rush to get a redistricting plan in place for next year has taken a big hit. It can still be done, but will require a three-fifths majority to get it on the 2019 ballot, and that’s no easy task.