TRENTON, N.J. - As U.S. Census figures roll out and states begin the politically charged process of redrawing state legislative maps, the politics of race is rising up as minority groups demand that their lawmakers look more like the communities they represent.
At issue is just how they do that and the two very different political approaches to promising minorities better representation in state Legislatures. One strategy concentrates minorities in a district, known as “packing,” the other dilutes them, often called “cracking.”
Raising the curtain on the national strategies for both parties is left-leaning New Jersey, which is further along in the process than other states and must come up with a final map by April 3 - just over a week before the filing deadline for Legislative candidates.
Other states drawing Legislative maps on an accelerated schedule because of fall elections include Virginia, Mississippi and Louisiana.
In New Jersey, Republicans are forming an unusual alliance with some Hispanics, who just surpassed African Americans as the state’s largest minority group, as both groups look for a map that offers a more competitive edge.
The strategy is familiar: It’s the same one Republicans used in the 1990s with African American leaders that was credited with helping Republicans regain Congress in 1994 for the first time since the 1950s.
Republicans won’t formally say that they support packing, but have 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. “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.”
Ginsberg is a controversial figure for Democrats.
As chief counsel for the Republican National Committee in the 1990s, he helped persuade African American leaders to consolidate black voters into a handful of districts around the country.
It led to big gains for black Democrats, especially in the South, and big losses for majority white Democrats, eventually costing the party control of Congress.
In a 1995 New Yorker article, Ginsberg jokingly referred to the Republican strategy as “Project Rat(expletive).” The Watergate-era term refers to recruiting conservative members to infiltrate opposition groups and undermine their effectiveness.
Ginsberg declined to comment when asked about the article, but accused New Jersey Democrats of packing Republicans into noncompetitive districts in 2001.
“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.
Legislative districts are redrawn every 10 years following the U.S. Census in order to keep the districts approximately the same size so that lawmakers have the same voting power.
Thirty-seven states rely on their Legislatures to draw maps while 13 use some sort of separate commission, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.
In New Jersey, a 10-member commission of five Democrats and five Republicans is appointed. If members can’t reach a compromise on a map by March 3, an 11th member is chosen by the State Supreme Court chief justice and has a month to break the tie.
In the past 20 years, the party that wins has gone on to control the Legislature -- the Republicans in 1990 and Democrats in 2001.
In 2001, Democrats promised Latinos better representation as they sliced into some heavily concentrated Hispanic areas, which today still have mostly white lawmakers representing them.
“For us, it’s not about parties, it’s about whether Latinos are going to have Latinos in the Statehouse,” said Martin Perez, president of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey, who said he has met with Republicans about drawing a new map. “If the party doesn’t want to give us the line, we can go out and get our own on the ballot.”
Recent census figures show an increase in New Jersey’s Hispanics population from 13 percent in 2000 to more than 17 percent now. Hispanics surpassed blacks, who now make up 13.5 percent of the population, for the first time to become the state’s largest minority population.
But while blacks make up nearly 13 percent of the state Legislature today, Hispanics lawmakers account for about 6 percent - a point some Hispanic groups and Republicans are quick to point out.
Democrats argue that there have been steady gains in minority representation through the years - far more than Republicans have put up. In 1992, there were only three Hispanics in the Legislature. Today, there are eight, and all are Democrats.
For minorities, packing and cracking both offer downsides.
While packing minorities into a district - say, a major city surrounded by white suburbs - offers a better chance to elect a minority, once elected, they could have token power as their political party loses control.
Spreading out the minority population among districts gives Democrats more competitive districts, but minorities less control in picking their candidates.
The Senate’s only Hispanic, Teresa Ruiz, noted that before she was sworn in January 2008, nearly 16 years passed since the last Latino voice was heard in the Senate chamber.
“It is extraordinary, it’s profound, and certainly not right,” Ruiz said. But she’s still not convinced packing is the answer.
“Packing is not progress,” she said. “If you insist on minority packing in the name of strengthening one ethnic group’s voice in one area of the state, you are inevitably diluting minority voices in another.”
Drawing maps is a complicated process. The commission must keep districts the same size and cannot split up municipalities except for the Newark and Jersey City, the two largest cities.
Data show the state’s largest population increases have been in the south Gloucester, Ocean and other counties in the southern portions of the state. And with Hispanics settling in greater numbers around smaller, more affluent communities, packing could be more difficult.
Whichever map is picked will be tested in November, when all 120 seats in the Legislature are up for election.
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