March 16, 2011 | Star-Ledger | Original Article

'Communities of interest' work in redistricting for New Jersey

In a democracy, the principle of one person, one vote is a sacred concept. If the principle is to apply in New Jersey, then ensuring a greater voice for Latinos — and other growing communities — in the halls of power is the greatest test facing the legislative redistricting commission as it enters the next phase of its deliberations.

The new legislative map must reflect the state’s changing demographics.

The numbers could not be clearer. New Jersey’s Latino community grew from 13.3 percent of the state’s population to 17.7 percent over the past decade. In fact, absent Latino population growth (and, to a lesser extent, growth in the African-American and Asian-American communities), New Jersey’s population would have declined.

As the Latino community has increased in numbers, it also has spread across the state. Latinos are no longer concentrated in a few urban areas; rather they are scattered throughout the suburbs and rural communities as well.

The past decade saw Rep. Albio Sires (D-13th Dist.) become the first Latino Assembly speaker and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) become our first statewide Latino elected official, both significant accomplishments. Yet today, there are only eight members of the Hispanic caucus in the state Legislature, one state senator and seven Assembly members. Even worse, Latino representation is isolated to just five of the state’s 21 counties — Hudson, Passaic, Union, Camden and Essex.

Neither political party has adequately represented the Latino community in New Jersey.

There are no Republican Latinos in the state Legislature. And while all eight members of the Hispanic caucus are Democrats, they have had to force their way into the club, based on the mathematics of power that pervades in their legislative districts.

The Latino Action Network expects that both political parties will come to the table with legislative maps that give Latinos a chance to have a voice in every part of New Jersey where we live.

Unfortunately, some groups advocate a change that would take us backward, rather than forward. “Packing” dilutes the political power of Latino communities by creating a few districts that are heavily minority, while “bleaching” surrounding communities. Thus, a few legislators might be very responsive to Latino community issues — while the vast majority of legislators would have little incentive to work with the Latino community. At the other extreme, “cracking” — fragmenting the Latino community in an area into several legislative districts, so that we have little power in any one of them — also presents a problem.

If packing and cracking do not work, what is the alternative?

The concept of “communities of interest” is key to effective redistricting. It means looking at the reality of communities’ day-to-day life — their “needs and interests,” according to one Supreme Court opinion — and making sure communities that actually function as one are not divided.

And it also applies across racial and ethnic lines, in places where genuine connections between Latino communities and other segments of the community can increase their political voice.
For instance, Monmouth County has seen strong growth in the Latino community since 2000. In Freehold Borough, the percentage of Latinos rose from 28 to 43 percent, while Red Bank’s grew from 17 to 34 percent.

Freehold, Red Bank, Long Branch and Asbury Park are four key centers of the Latino community in Monmouth County — they share a common heritage, common community institutions. However, the Latino community in these towns is cracked into two districts, the 11th and 12th. As such, there is insufficient ability in either of these districts for the community to even influence the election of a candidate of choice.

In the new map, we’d like to see Freehold, Red Bank, Long Branch and Asbury Park in the same district. Other towns in the district would include Allenhurst, Colts Neck, Deal, Eatontown, Interlaken, Loch Arbour, Neptune, Ocean Township, Shrewsbury Borough, Shrewsbury Township, Tinton Falls and West Long Branch. Several of these communities, such as Eatontown and Tinton Falls, also have significant Latino communities connected to the broader Latino citizenry in Monmouth County.

Right now, the political voice of the Latino community is a faint whisper in New Jersey. We need to amplify it considerably to remain true to the core principles of democracy.