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Redistricting Leaves County Democrats Optimistic

New map, which divided Somerset into six legislative districts, could provide more representation, officials say.

With the state legislative redistricting just days old, Somerset County Democrats put on a strong display of optimism at the Somerset County Democratic Committee’s Nominating Convention at the Elks Lodge in Bound Brook Saturday.

“I have often said that we are on the crest of a blue wave and that we are going to ride it to victory, but mostly I was lying,” Somerset County Democratic Committee Chairwoman Peg Schaffer said to approximately 100 attendees. “But thanks to the redistricting team, that optimism is finally warranted. We have the best opportunity in decades to get fair representation in Trenton.”  

New Jersey’s 40 legislative districts are redrawn every 10 years based on changes in the population. Changes, if any, are determined by an 11-member commission made up of five Republicans, five Democrats and one independent, who serves as a tiebreaker.  Each party drew their own map last Sunday. Rutgers University professor Alan Rosenthal, the 11th member, . 

The result is that there are now six districts in Somerset County.

“That map is a game-changer,” Schaffer said.

The redistricting of the state legislative map is expected to have an impact on six municipalities, in particular in Somerset Hills—Bernards Township, Bernardsville, Far Hills, Bedminster Township and Peapack-Gladstone—as well as Bridgewater.

All formerly part of the 16th district, the municipalities had been controlled by Republicans for decades and are now dispersed among three separate districts: Bernards Township and Far Hills are now part of the 21st District, which is largely comprised of Union County municipalities; Bernardsville was moved into the 25th District, which is comprised primarily of Morris County municipalities; and Bridgewater, Bedminster Township and Peapack-Gladstone were added to the 23rd District, which is comprised primarily of Hunterdon County municipalities.

The 16th District changes are particularly significant since it will now see more Democratic voters from Middlesex and Mercer counties.  

The 21st District, the new home for Bernards and Far Hills, is  based primarily in Union County. Also in the district are the Somerset County towns of Warren Township and Watchung, the Morris County municipalities of Long Hill Township and Chatham Borough, and the Union County communities of Berkeley Heights, New Providence, Summit, Springfield, Mountainside, Westfield, Cranford, Garwood, Kenilworth and Roselle Park Borough. 

Bonnie Diehl, who is running for a council seat in Basking Ridge, announced the 21st District nominations for Senate and the Assembly. Party members officially nominated attorney Paul Swanicke for Senate and Norman Albert and Bruce Bergen for the assembly.

“I am running to give people the choice between a ‘yes’ party and a ‘no’ party,” Swanicke said. “The Republican party has been anti public education, anti-union, anti-poor, anti-health care reform and anti-choice.”

Since each district has one senator and two assembly members, the towns will have new representatives in Trenton next January—six senators, 12 Assembly people and five freeholders.

Democratic nominees for freeholder seats are bank branch manager Wes Ifran and laywer Christian Mastondrea. 

“Because there are so many people that I know who are affected by the policies in place, I was compelled to run,” Ifran said. “If I don’t go ahead and do what I can do in public service to help change things, then in a lot of cases I would be a hypocrite. I really felt compelled because of the community.” 

It is the first time that the 30-year-old Ifram is running for public office. He said that from being involved with phone banking and canvassing in his professional life, he got a sense of what it really takes to be successful by trying to help someone else.

“This time with me being the person campaigning, I will apply the same work ethic,” he said.

Mastondrea, for his part, said taxes and partisan politics are his key items on his agenda. 

“We are going to have a lot of discussion in Somerset County about taxes,” Mastondrea said. “I am a tax payer too. The question is how are we going to fund county government? It’s a $200 million enterprise.”

Mastondrea said that for 30-plus years, Republican-led legislative rule has been a one sided affair.

“[Peter] Palmer and [Robert] Zaboroski have been representative of the fact that the Republicans treat government like it’s their own, and that is not good,” Mastondrea said. “If you want lower taxes and you want some type of oversight you can’t have it as a sole party for that period of time.  We are going to look at things from a different perspective and bring a new level of oversight."

Despite the potential for greater Democratic influence in the legislative dialogue, Democrats will have work cut out for them.

“Somerset County seems to think that if a Democrat wins, they will never get rid of them", Mastondrea said. “At the next election, you can always undo it. But for the time being, when we are talking about types of changes to budgets and tax increases, do you really want to have it controlled by the Republicans?”

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