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Black leaders agree to split Pleasantville and Atlantic City on county commission map

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As the Atlantic County Commissioner Redistricting Commission proceeds with its task of redrawing the county’s five county commission districts, a coalition of the county’s most prominent Black politicians released a statement today in support of putting Pleasantville and Atlantic City in separate districts, something done by the Democratic redistricting proposal but not the Republican proposal.

“While the current county commissioner map was necessary to preserve minority representation 10 or 20 years ago, we are no longer content with simply one majority-minority district,” they wrote in a joint statement. “With a county that itself is on the verge of becoming majority-minority, we must have a county commissioner map that creates additional minority districts so as to alleviate the suppressed influence that black and brown voters in Atlantic County currently have.”

The coalition includes Atlantic County Commissioner Ernest Coursey, Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small, Pleasantville Mayor Judy Ward, and Atlantic City Councilman Kaleem Shabazz as well as Michael Suleiman and Thelma Witherspoon, the two Democratic members of the redistricting commission.

In the same letter, the coalition also called for the 2nd legislative district to have a candidate of color on the ticket in 2023. The district is now just 51% white but has never had a legislator of color representing it in Trenton, and all six candidates who ran last year were white.

“In addition to supporting this map, and to continue to grow the influence of minority communities, we will identify and support at least one person of color on the Legislative District 2 ticket next year,” they wrote. “Electing a person of color to represent Atlantic County in the legislature will be a historic ‘first’ and something we will strongly support.

Historically, Pleasantville and Atlantic City—which are the only two majority-minority municipalities in the county—have been put into one district on the county commission map. That arrangement has benefited Republicans, who stand to gain from the county’s most heavily Democratic voters being concentrated in one district, but it has also typically received the support of the county’s Black community.

In 2011, for example, a Democratic redistricting proposal that split Pleasantville and Atlantic City from one another drew vociferous opposition from Black politicians like Atlantic City Councilman Steven Moore.

“I am dismayed that my party would separate Atlantic City and Pleasantville,” he said in a public hearing at the time. “If Atlantic City and Pleasantville are separated, the minority voting population would drop below 30 percent, and if you introduce Brigantine, the population of non-minorities would go up above 45 percent.”

The commission tiebreaker at the time, Dennis Braithwaite, was ultimately swayed by those arguments and arguments from Republicans that their map would preserve continuity of representation, and chose a Republican proposal that kept Pleasantville and Atlantic City together.

But with significant growth over the past decade in Atlantic County’s minority population, especially its Hispanic population, packing the two cities is no longer necessary to create a majority-minority district.

On the Democratic proposal this year, Commissioner Coursey would retain his majority-minority Atlantic City-based 1st district, while the new Pleasantville-based 2nd district would be 51% white and would elect Democrats in most years.

The 3rd and 4th districts remain similar to the current map, making them competitive majority-white districts with a significant minority population, while the safely Republican 5th district would be completely untouched. (The 3rd district is also majority-white on the current map but is represented a Black commissioner, Republican Andrew Parker.)

The Republican proposal, meanwhile, moves exactly two precincts and otherwise leaves the current map alone, making for one drastically Democratic district and four whiter, more Republican ones, though even then the 3rd district would be only 53% white.

At the first meeting of the redistricting commission in January, county Republican chairman Keith Davis insisted that an Atlantic City-Pleasantville district was legally required under the Voting Rights Act, and urged Democrats on the commission to agree to keep the two towns together.

“If we start from that principle, and can agree that [the 1st district] must be legally maintained in order to ensure representation of minority groups, I think we can work out a map that is bipartisan in nature,” Davis said.

Given the impasse between Republicans and Democrats on the configuration of Atlantic City and Pleasantville, the decision will almost certainly go to Georgia Curio, a former Superior Court judge who was chosen earlier this month as the commission’s tiebreaker.

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