Redistricting Changes Political Landscape of Long Island

Written by Amy Gernon  |  20. March 2012

Last Wednesday during a late-night private negotiation with the State Legislature, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo agreed to sign off on the proposed redistricting plan based on the 2010 census information.  In exchange, the Legislature has pledged to create a constitutional amendment ensuring a bipartisan panel to oversee redistricting following the next census in 2020. 

The congressional election districts, approved on March 19th by judges presiding at the Brooklyn federal court, were already being used to plan campaigns since they were released, and a June 26 primary has been scheduled based on the districts proposed on March 6th. The changes made in the new plans are not being opposed by the Senate’s Republican majority or the Assembly’s Democratic majority.
The redistricting plan would eliminate the Hudson Valley’s 22nd district, which is currently represented by Democrat Maurice Hinchey, as well as the 9th District in Queens and Brooklyn represented by Republican Bob Turner, leaving only four districts on Long Island.  The plan maintains 13 districts with racial minorities accounting for more than half of the voters.  The first district with a majority of Asian voters will be created by the plan, as well as a 63rd seat through upstate suburbs that will have a majority of Republican voters.   A 63rd district with a Republican majority would not only enable the party to hold onto their majority standing, but by creating an odd number of districts it would ensure that there is always a majority.
Statewide, Democrats are registered 2-to-1 against Republicans, and 48 of the 62 current districts have a Democratic majority of voters.  Yet, the Senate’s Republican majority has a 32-30 edge over Democrats.
Critics are denouncing Gov. Cuomo’s decision to sign the measure because as a gubernatorial candidate in 2010 Cuomo promised to veto any “hyper-partisan lines.”  The Governor reiterated this message at the first meeting of a joint legislative task force responsible for drawing redistricting plans in July of 2011.  During the 2010 campaign, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch received Cuomo’s signature, along with that of most members of the Senate and Assembly majorities for his New York Uprising pledge to support independent redistricting. 
Bill Samuels, leader of the New Roosevelt reform group and Citizens Committee for an Effective Constitution has called the Governor’s agreement a “terrible thing for the history of our state.”  Samuels, along with other good-government groups, argue that allowing the Legislature’s majorities to redraw their own election lines distorts the process in an effort to preserve political power.  Since the next redistricting process won’t take place until after the 2020 census information is finalized, gerrymandered districts would protect the political power and perks of the Senate and Assembly majorities for the next ten years. 
Redistricting takes place every ten years using updated census data.   New York State gives the Legislature the authority to draw district boundaries, and a separate six-person commission established in 1978, known as the Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment (LATFOR), serves an advisory role.  The members of the current task force are Michael Nozzolio (R), Martin Dilan (D), and Welquiz Lopez of the Senate, and John McEneny (D), Robert Oaks (R), and Roman Hedges of the Assembly.  The final redistricting deal must be approved by the Department of Justice before it can take effect. 
The idea behind the process is to ensure that similar communities are drawn within the same district lines to ensure more fair representation.  But legislative majorities in states across the nation have used the process to support incumbents and disadvantage challengers.   That is why it comes as no surprise that the Senate and Assembly majorities, despite being opposing political parties, each want the new districts to be solidified. 
Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R) describes the agreement as a “lost opportunity” to enact independent redistricting.  “It ain’t happening this year or for the next ten years,” Kolb told the Wall Street Journal.  The New York Public Interest Research Group and Koch have both come forward to counter the Governor’s claim that a constitutional amendment to ensure independent redistricting is not worth 10 years of partisan state legislative lines.   Susan Lerner of Common Cause-NY says that the amendment would actually make future redistricting worse because it will affirm that the Legislature has the final say on district lines.
Still, Cuomo as well as the Senate and Assembly majorities say that the approval of the redistricting plan in exchange for a constitutional amendment is worth it.  Judges adopted the new map on Monday afternoon in Brooklyn Federal Court.
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