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An inspiring moment as Democrats back off gerrymandering scam | Moran

The most fierce opposition to plan by Democratic leaders came not from Republicans, but from fellow Democrats who want to win elections fair and square.

On Saturday, the top two Democrats in the Legislature did what any sensible burglars would do when the alarm sounds and the floodlights snap on - they dropped their loot and ran.

The leaders, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, couldn't drum up enough votes to do their mischief. Their plan was to redraw New Jersey's political map in a way that would lock in an unfair advantage for Democrats over the next decade. They tried to do it in the dark, during lame duck session of the Legislature, when they thought everyone in the house was asleep.

But the alarm did sound, and suddenly the villagers were aroused, charging at Sweeney and Coughlin with torches in hand.

The surprise - and the glory of this moment - is that most of those charging at them were not Republicans, a party that has been worn down to a nub in New Jersey after the Christie years.

The storm of protest came mostly from the left, from Democrats and liberal activists who want to win elections fair and square. They signed the petitions, organized the marches, and testified against the plan. Citizen groups like the League of Women Voters, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey all called this a partisan gerrymander. The Princeton Gerrymandering Project warned that Republicans could someday use these same rules to gain unfair advantage against Democrats.

Grassroots groups joined the protest. They include leaders of NJ 11th for Change, South Jersey Progressive Women for Change, and the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, whose leader, Analilia Mejia, put the case against it succinctly: "We do not have to cheat to win," she says.

In the end, what started as another unseemly moment in Trenton turned into an inspiring one. Democrats have been watching Trump Republicans across the country cheapen our democracy with stunts like this, and much worse. And they wanted no part of it. Instead of reaching for a club to strike back, they reached for higher ground.

They listened to national Democrats like Eric Holder, the former attorney general, who said this stunt would damage the national fight against far more radical gerrymandering in states like Texas and North Carolina, along with shamelessly partisan and racist efforts to suppress turnout by restricting voting hours and imposing unreasonable ID requirements.

Republicans in Wisconsin just offered fresh insult. After losing in November, they used their final weeks in power to strip away key powers of the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general. Vladimir Putin must be delighted to find such effective allies in his fight to cheapen our democracy and inflame our divisions.

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For now at least, New Jersey Democrats are going to do the right thing, having exhausted all the other alternatives. Sweeney and Coughlin both put out statements that left them wiggle room to try again next year, but it's tough to take that seriously. Gov. Phil Murphy, to his credit, opposed this stunt from the start.

The irony is that New Jersey is ahead of most states today when it come to gerrymandering, We don't allow the legislature to draw the political map, as in most states. We hand the job to an independent commission, split between the two parties, and with a tie-breaker appointed by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court. Why fix what's not broken?

This amendment would have tied the hands of the "independent" commission for the first time by requiring that it consider only statewide elections when devising its map. That includes races for president, U.S. Senate, and the governorship, where Democrats dominate. The commission would be barred from weighing the results of legislative elections, where Republicans are more competitive.

For now, let's relish the moment. With Donald Trump in the White House, these are scary times for our democracy. This time, though, democracy pushed back.

More: Tom Moran columns 

Tom Moran may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  or call (973) 836-4909. Follow him on Twitter @tomamoran. Find NJ.com Opinion on Facebook.


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