As the midterm elections come into sharper focus, so do my concerns with the big, pressing issues: Inflation and the economy, Ukraine and Taiwan (notice I didn’t say Russia and China), Trump and all the investigations he so richly deserves, control of Congress, and the soft civil war simmering just below the republic’s surface, shot through with chants of antisemitism and nativist hatred.
I also have an additional concern this election cycle, one that hearkens back to the late and savvy speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, who hailed from Boston and was a caricaturist’s dream. With his shock of white hair askew, his always ruddy cheeks growing ruddier, and his flat New England accent broadening even more, he would rasp out: “All politics is local.”
I should have been paying more attention to old Tip. And I suppose I should have been paying more attention to the decennial exercise that follows each U.S. Census. Aside from producing a mass of evidence on our parenting, spending, and plumbing habits, it also forms the basis for redrawing legislative and congressional districts. The object is to let the states accurately reflect population shifts during the preceding decade, allowing the peoples’ houses to function more closely in tune with the beating heart of the electorate.
At least, that’s the highfalutin’ theory.
What often follows are bare-knuckle political brawls or frenzied gerrymandering, bending some districts into grotesque shapes and prompting inevitable court challenges. We recently witnessed these scenarios playing out with vengeance, especially in red bastions trying to outdo each other by upending long-established laws and legal precedents.
In the Garden State, not known for being a shrinking violet in most matters (pardon the labored botanical analogies), this bit of business has been done in a relatively decorous fashion, which is to say so far under the radar that only the most connected players know what’s going on. And the process became even more opaque during the pandemic. The New Jersey Redistricting Commission, a body mandated by the state constitution, consists of 12 members, six from each party, chosen by legislative leaders (talk about inside baseball!), and a 13th, supposedly an impartial chair, who casts the tie-breaking vote needed to validate a new congressional map. This person often is a professor of political science or, in the 2020 instance, a retired state Supreme Court justice, seemingly an ideal choice to lend a patina of respectability to the goings-on.
The commission must hold three public hearings and review plans submitted by the public. And the meeting where the plan is adopted also must be open. However, the commissioners are allowed to conduct private sessions, and that’s where the political sausage gets ground and the contours of the redrawn districts take shape.
I only write about this because like many other Jerseyans, I apparently didn’t get the memo on newly drawn congressional districts. I was shocked – shocked! — to learn in the most roundabout way that a different congressperson will represent me … again. When the sample ballot for this year’s primary arrived in the mail at my home in West Orange, I noticed that instead of Democrat Mikie Sherrill’s name, it bore that of Donald Payne Jr., also a Democrat and the scion of a pioneering Black political leader in Newark. Obviously, I thought, the Essex County clerk’s office erred in printing the samples, since I was still being bombarded by Ms. Sherrill’s fundraising emails. She had represented my 11th District for barely two terms, winning election in 2018 after the incumbent, rock-ribbed Republican Rodney Frelinghuysen Jr., decided to retire. Mr. Frelinghuysen, whose power base was Morris County, came to represent the area after a portion of Essex was squeezed into his district following the 2010 remap.
Well, my district has been squeezed again. I was as comfortable with Ms. Sherrill as my representative as I was discomfited by Mr. Frelinghuysen, a 12-term wheelhorse who gained a committee chairmanship by pure seniority and rarely deviated from the GOP party line. She, on the other hand, proved reliably moderate to liberal, thoughtful, a graduate of Annapolis who flew Navy helicopters, a mom, a lawyer, a prosecutor and on the right side of issues I deemed important. Conversely, Mr. Frelinghuysen, who traced his lineage to one of New Jersey’s earliest and most prominent families, symbolized the past, a fusty status quo-er who would do little to antagonize the generally well-healed constituents of a district short on diversity.
Now I’ve been catapulted in the opposite direction. Donald Payne Jr., apparently my new rep come January (a Democrat is a virtual lock in the deep-blue 10th District) enjoyed a modest, name-recognition career in Newark politics before he was elected to fill his father’s congressional seat in 2012 after the elder Donald Milford Payne died. In 1986, Payne pere had become New Jersey’s first Black representative and went on to win 12 terms in Congress. In the process, he entered the top tier of national Black leadership with a clarion liberal voice (not always on Israel) and a penchant for delivering the goods to his Newark constituency.
But I haven’t heard a peep out of junior. In the primary, he steamrollered a Black woman challenger from Montclair with a decisive boost from the Essex Democratic machine.
Just like Mr. Frelinghuysen before him, he has practiced a modified version of benign campaign neglect in our area. No mailings, no email alerts, just a few lonely signs stuck into the ground at key intersections. I googled the guy and found out from his pictures that he’s partial to bow-ties and is lot portlier than his father. Hardly the stuff on which to base a considered vote. And, oh yes, he made the obligatory trip to Israel and has shown the same concern for Sudan and South Sudan as did his dad.
I am by no means prejudging the person, but it certainly makes me wince at the integrity of the process. Once again, representative roulette has dealt me a wild card (to completely reshuffle my metaphors). Before Mr. Frelinghuysen and as the result of another remap, the venerable William Pascrell became my voice in D.C. for a few terms. Many voters in Bergen, Passaic, Essex, and other locales are familiar with his name, face, and resume. Mr. Pascrell, a fiery, reliable liberal, has been literally all over the map and is still going strong representing the 9th District. Preceding Mr. Pascrell, my congressman was another intrusive Morris Republican, Dean Gallo who wrested the seat held for 22 years from Joseph Minish, a labor-backed Essex Democrat seemingly elected in perpetuity. At least it appeared that way to me when I was younger and just beginning to puzzle over the vicissitudes of politics.
I’ll end this tortuous backwards glance by noting that Mr. Minish’s predecessor was the notorious Hugh Addonizio, a corrupted Democratic congressman who became the mob-tied mayor of Newark before being packed off to prison.
And now it comes down to Mr. Payne the younger. What to expect? Actually, I’m resigned to expecting not too much, except that he will vote reflexively Democratic in a House that may go Republican in November. Yes, his views and mine seem to square on issues dear to me, but can I count on his focus and passion? Those will be directed, mainly and perhaps fittingly, to his Newark-area constituency. My stretch of the suburbs seems once again to be a redistricting afterthought. To be taken for granted in these deeply divided times is troubling to the mind and the spirit.
Old Tip may have been right when he said all politics was local. He didn’t say, though, that it had to be mind-numbing.
Jonathan E. Lazarus is a retired editor at the Star-Ledger and a copy editor and occasional columnist for the Jewish Standard/NJJN. He definitely will vote for Mr. Payne in November.