Rep. Chris Smith: Comfortably Absent
How redistricting enables a career-politician to coast through decades of re-election on incumbency
The American people are fed up with politicians. Congressional approval ratings hovering near all-time lows and massive populist movements are campaigning against establishment politicians. Donald Trump is President. Yet, in spite of this, incumbent politicians are being re-elected at a remarkably high percentage. 96.4% of incumbent Members of Congress were re-elected in 2014.
The poster child for this is my Congressman — New Jersey’s District 4 Representative Chris Smith. Smith is currently in his 19th term in Congress. Nineteenth. He’s held his seat for a solid 36 years. One might think that, to retain his seat, he’d have to be a pretty popular Congressman. He’s not. Smith is constantly criticized for being inaccessible, is rarely seen in his home district, and even his own party doesn’t like him.
Then how does he keep getting re-elected?
First, some history
Way back in 1978, then-25-year-old Chris Smith ran for Congress in New Jersey’s 4th District. He lost badly to the incumbent Democrat Frank Thompson, who won his 12th re-election.
Then in 1980, Smith ran against Thompson again. Smith and the 4th District had not changed. However during the campaign, Thompson was implicated in the Abscam corruption scandal which, for obvious reasons, greatly affected his popularity. In addition, the conservative surge from Ronald Reagan’s Presidential campaign boosted Republican voter turnout across the country. Smith went on to defeat Thompson 57%–41% (and Thompson went to jail on bribery and conspiracy charges).
In 1982, now-Rep. Smith was up for his first re-election. He narrowly defeated Democrat Joseph Merlino, winning 53% of the vote. 1982 was Rep. Chris Smith’s last competitive election.
In 1984, Rep. Smith handily defeated Democratic challenger James Hedden 61%–39%. This dominance of the District 4 seat continues until today. Rep. Chris Smith has won at least 61% of the vote since 1984.
If you know Rep. Chris Smith, you’d know that he doesn’t change. Then what explains his sudden, drastic surge between 1982 and 1984? Redistricting.
During Smith’s Congressional tenure, New Jersey has been redistricted five times. This notably includes a redistricting in 1983, which resulted in a dramatic change in Smith’s electability. With each redistricting, the boundaries of the district are manipulated to contain the demographics for a comfortable majority.
I know. That sounds like a partisan attack, but it’s not. During redistricting process, politicians on both sides of the aisle make no allusions that their goals are anything but protecting their congressional seats.
In New Jersey, a bipartisan panel of 6 Republicans and 6 Democrats redraw the map. Sounds great on paper, but each party submits their own map. The debate is bitter, with each party obviously redrawing the district lines for their own gain.
Since each member will obviously vote along party lines, a non-partisan tie-breaker makes the decision. In 2011 the tie-breaker was John Farmer Jr., dean of the Rutgers-Newark law school. He had this to say about the redistricting debate:
“Ultimately there will come a point when they both say ‘Uncle. I can’t do anymore,’ And at that point I’ll make a call. And I think we’re getting pretty close to that point.”
In this debate there is no compromise, just attrition. Clearly, the interests of the people are not in mind.
Constituencies change when Representatives don’t
Congressional districts are constantly redrawn for a wide variety of reasons, and not solely for political gain. Let’s look past partisan gerrymandering for a minute.
I am a resident Holmdel, New Jersey. After many years of being part of Congressional District 12, New Jersey Congressional districts needed to be redrawn as the state was losing a district to faster growing states. As a result of the intensely partisan debates over the proposed districts, I ended up being redistricted into Rep. Chris Smith’s constituency.
You’d think such an event would prompt a representative to engage with his new constituency — by spending time in the district at campaign events, holding Town Halls or other open forums — but Smith has yet to do this. District lines are drawn so safely along party lines that re-election is a given; there is no need for Rep. Chris Smith to engage his constituents.
Rep. Chris Smith has earned a bit of a reputation as an absentee Congressman. In 1983, he bought a home in the Washington suburb of Herndon, Virginia. It’s not uncommon for Members of Congress to buy homes near Washington, D.C. It is, however, uncommon for a representative to spend as few as 7 nights per year in their home district.
Smith maintains a permanent residence in the form of a small apartment in Hamilton, New Jersey. It’s quite obvious that he keeps this address solely to keep his Congressional seat. When investigated a few years ago, his neighbors living doors away from his supposed residence were shocked to learn that he lives in there.
One neighbor was so shocked by Smith’s absence that he questioned its legality:
“I don’t suppose that’s illegal, but if you’re representing a district, it would be nice to have the Congressman here,” said the neighbor, who said that he’s actually a fan of Smith’s and didn’t want his name used in anything that reflected negatively on him.
This absenteeism could potentially be mitigated by an active engagement and open dialog with his constituents while he is present in the district. However, Smith has not held a public Town Hall since 1992. New Jersey Congressional District 4 has been redrawn three times since Rep. Chris Smith has last spoken to his constituents. He cannot possibly represent the district if he does not know who his constituents are.
Where’s the dialog?
Public outcry has been growing over Mr. Smith’s neglect of his district. Recently, a group of his constituents organized a Citizens’ Town Hall on the topic of healthcare. An invite was extended to the Congressman’s office. Regrettably Smith declined to attend, citing angry calls he’s received from constituents
His office’s official statement attempted to smear the event as misleading ‘fake news’:
Regrettably, there is a coordinated effort to mislead the public concerning an event next week, February 22, 2017, that is not being conducted in affiliation with this office. Neither Mr. Smith nor members of his staff will be in attendance.
As mentioned in the invitation that Mr. Smith received, the non-partisan Town Hall proceeded without him. Attendance was much larger than anticipated; the venue was overflowing with concerned constituents. Here are some photos of the night:
If these photos are any evidence, it would seem that Mr. Smith’s neglect of his constituents is being felt. Asking those in attendance, the overwhelming majority felt that Smith does not represent them and is unwilling to hear their concerns.
That’s a real bi-partisan problem.
Rep. Chris Smith is coasting on incumbency in a heavily gerrymandered district. Due to partisan redistricting, he’s become so comfortable in his seat that he does not need to campaign, hear the concerns of his constituents, or even be present in the district.
As a Representative, his job is very literal: to represent his constituency in Congress. Rep. Chris Smith does not know his constituents and is not motivated to meet with them; how can he possibly represent them?