Issue of the Week

Redistricting

by Gail Robinson

1 April 02

New York State Senator Guy Velella probably does not consider himself an artist. But the Bronx politician deserves some credit for the winning entry in this year's Pablo Picasso/Salvador Dali Awards, according to the creator of the awards, Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group, who dubs Velella's new state senate district "Oops I Spilled My Coffee on the Map." It is a district of such torturous boundaries and surreal shape that it beat out runners-up, "Bug Squashed on a Windshield" and "Abe Lincoln Riding a Vacuum Cleaner."

The reason for the bizarrely shaped new state legislative districts, according to Horner and other good-government advocates, is very simple - to make sure that incumbents get re-elected. "It's like the Politburo in terms of re-election rates," says Horner, "except in the Politburo if you got beaten you were sent to the Gulag. Here you become a lobbyist. It's more humane."

Velella's newly redrawn 34th district is designed to boost the Republican's chances of reelection by including more white neighborhoods in Westchester than there are in his current district, and by specifically excluding the home of Lorraine Coyle Koppell, who mounted an energetic challenge to Velella in the 2000 election.

Koppell now finds herself in the new district of State Senator Eric Schneiderman, who has been described as the bete noire of the New York State Senate Republican leadership. Schneiderman, meanwhile, is losing the part of his Upper West Side district where he grew up. "The Republicans are punishing me," Schneiderman says.

It seems a long way from the principles, embedded in the Constitution and reinforced by the Supreme Court in a landmark 1962 ruling, that are supposedly behind what has come to be called redistricting. And, indeed, the way it is done in New York is not the way it is done elsewhere in the nation.

"It's not our proudest moment," says Rachel Leon of Common Cause.

POWER TO THE POLITICIANS

This year, based on the results of the 2000 Census, New York's political boundaries will have to be redrawn on three different levels:

1. Congressional districts. Because other states gained more population than New York State did, the state will lose two of its 31 members of Congress. Will any of the 13 members of Congress who specifically represent New York City lose out when the new districts are redrawn for November's election?

2. The New York State legislature, both the state senate and the state assembly. Because of shifts in population within the state, some areas, such as New York City, should gain seats. The proposed new districts have been drawn up, hearings have already been held, and the plan is slated to go to the full legislature and the governor for their approval later this month.

3. The City Council. Council districts must be redrawn to reflect changes in population within the city. A redistricting commission specific to the city will be appointed by May, and present a plan by November.

State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver control the majority of appointments to the redistricting task force responsible for drawing up both the new Congressional districts and also the districts of the New York State legislature. "Letting you draw the lines," another representative of Common Cause told this task force, "is like letting students grade their own papers."

Some states have a different approach. Across the country, 12 states have taken redistricting away from the direct control of the legislature, according to Samuel Issacharoff, a professor at Columbia Law School. In Iowa, for example, a non-partisan office draws the maps without looking at where incumbents live or what the party registration would be in the proposed districts. And in 2000, Arizona residents voted to establish a redistricting commission that would determine congressional and legislative districts independent of the state legislature.

THE NEW LEGISLATIVE MAP

In February, the New York state task force on redistricting presented its proposal for state legislative districts. The plan had to address the undisputed fact that New York City gained population in the 1990s, while much of upstate lost people. And so the task force proposed giving New York City four more seats in the overwhelmingly Democratic state assembly, taking those districts from the rest of the state.

The Senate leadership, though, did not want to lose any upstate senate seats. So the senate plan calls for increasing the total number of senate seats by one. The proposal takes advantage of what Elizabeth Daniel of the Brennan Center for Justice, calls some "muddy language in the state constitution" to create a new and probably Republican district in Brooklyn. Meanwhile, six incumbent Democratic senators from New York City would be paired off against each other in three different districts.

The deal reflects who controls what in Albany. Democrats have a hefty majority in the assembly where Speaker Sheldon Silver of Manhattan wields power. Republicans hold a slim majority in the state senate -- and want to hold on to it. Republicans defer to Democrats where the assembly is concerned; Democrats yield to Republicans on matters affecting the senate.

Judging from the reaction at hearings on the plan, the task force's solution was less than Solomonic. Speaker after speaker attacked the proposal for slighting one community or another. Other people went to the microphone to profess their undying devotion to a state senator or assemblymember -- who, they complained, was about to be snatched from their midst and moved to another district. At least some of these supposedly bereft citizens were reportedly lured to the hearing by promises of a free meal from the legislator in question.

AN INCUMBENT PROTECTION PLAN

Legislators in New York State enjoy something approaching lifetime tenure. Only 25 incumbents have been beaten in the last 20 years, meaning less than 1 percent of incumbents are defeated in any one year. This could be a tribute to the outstanding performance of the men and women of the legislature but critics say it is at least partly due to how the districts are drawn. In all but 30 out of 211 proposed senate and assembly districts, the number of voters registered in one party outnumbers those in the other by more than 10 percent. This could explain why in 1996, for example, the winners of 201 out of 211 state legislative races in New York defeated their opponents by more than 10 percent. The lack of competition "is one reason New York has one of the most dysfunctional state governments in the nation," says Daniel.

But Assemblyman Chris Ortloff, a Republican from Plattsburg, says so many parts of the state are either overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican that it is difficult to create competitive districts.

By protecting incumbents and the Republican edge in the State Senate, the task force has slighted various ethnic communities, according to many politicians and advocates. For example, Richmond Hill, an area with a large Asian Indian and Caribbean Indian population, would be divided among five assembly districts, diluting the power of the South Asian vote.

At a hearing in Manhattan, former City Councilmember Guillermo Linares urged creation of a single state senate district in Dominican Washington Heights, Inwood, Marble Hill and Highbridge. Current plans call for that area to be divided among three different state senators, meaning, he said, that "the community will not be the central focus of attention" of any of them.

Esmeralda Simmons of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, charged that the creation of the additional senate district "harms black voters of New York City." The task force, she said, has "increased the number of seats but it has not increased the number of black seats."

District are allowed to differ somewhat in population. And so critics such as Glenn D. Magpantay of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, charge that senate districts with large numbers of blacks, Latinos and Asians tend to have more people in them than the mostly white, upstate districts. This again is seen as diluting the power of minority voters.

PERSONAL POLITICS

Aside from protecting incumbents, the plan punishes some politicians, such as Schneiderman, and rewards others. In the former category put State Senator Daniel Hevesi who could lose his district to a grudge, according to Newsday. In 1999, Hevesi opposed the nomination of Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, who had served as an aide to several top New York politicians of both parties, to be a trustee of the City University of New York. Now, Wiesenfeld claims credit for having had Hevesi's district redrawn so he will be forced to run against another incumbent, Toby Stavisky. "I kept quiet. I held my peace," Wiesenfeld told Newsday, "but I remember you pal, and now I got your number."

The redrawing of the Brooklyn map seems designed to create a seat in the state senate for Republican City Councilman Martin Golden, who will lose his current job because of term limits in 2002.

Similarly, another seat may well have been drawn with City Councilman James Oddo in mind -- even though term limits will not force Oddo from his current position until 2009.

The task force does not advertise these kinds of maneuverings. At the hearings, members of the task force remained mostly silent but occasionally said they had to balance an array of competing interests and demands. These include trying to address changes in population, comply with the federal Voting Rights act and shift district lines as little as possible.

Clearly there are an infinite number of ways to carve up the state and none of them would make everyone happy. Or, as task force co-chairman Dean Skelos put it, "If you had two accountants and two mathematicians in the same room, they would come up with four different answers."

Despite the objections to the plan, most experts anticipate that the legislature will vote on and approve something very similar to it later this month. Pataki has said he does not like the proposal but has not indicated what his objections are.

New York Public Interest Research Group, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters have urged Pataki to "can the plan" or use it as a bargaining chip to pass a state campaign finance bill. They argue that together the drawing of districts and lack of public financing have created the "incumbency protection plan" in New York. At least one of those things, says Horner, should change.

If the governor signs the pact, it then goes to the Justice Department which, under the Voting Rights Act, must review the plan for the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan. If it passes those hurdles, some districts will almost certainly be challenged in the courts as they were 10 years ago. But, says Daniel of the Brennan Center, while legal challenges "may be able to address problems with the racial impact of how the lines are drawn or questions of severe numerical inequality, they cannot address the incumbent- protection gerrymandering that drives the system."

CONGRESSIONAL LOSERS

The task force and legislature must also confront the new districts for the U.S. House of Representatives this year. With New York losing two of its congresspeople, the game becomes a kind of political musical chairs: When the redistricting stops who will be without a place to sit?

Since the city gained population, there is some rationale for upstate losing both seats. Few observers, though, think that is likely to happen. "The signs are not good from Albany, where power in the state legislature is evenly divided between Democrats from New York City and Republicans from upstate and the suburbs, " the New York Times reported last spring. "In fact, some Republicans have vaguely threatened to extract both seats from the city, offering little justification beyond their obvious political might."

Many observers predict a compromise in which upstate and the city each lose one. And since none of the 12 Democrats and 1 Republicans who represent the city in the House has indicated a willingness to retire, intense speculation surrounds who could lose his or her seat and hence his or her job.

After the 1990 census, the big loser was Stephen Solarz, a Brooklyn Democrat whose largely Jewish district was eliminated. Solarz, who had also been tainted by a Capitol Hill scandal, ran in a new largely Latino district and was defeated by Nydia Velzaquez.

The Observer predicts that another white male will fall this year. Queens Democratic Representative Joseph Crowley is one candidate for political extinction because he is more conservative than the state party leadership and backed a failed attempt to oust Silver as speaker. Bronx Democrat Eliot Engel, who is white, could be hurt if his district, already more than 70 percent black and Latino, loses even more white voters to the adjoining district represented by Nita Lowey.

Politicians from Democratic areas see Silver as being particularly key to the survival. And so Democratic congressmembers are courting him. One has reportedly gone so far as to hire Silver's former chief of staff as lobbyist, hoping that will induce the speaker to look favorably upon him.

BACK AT CITY HALL

The debate over City Council seats this year will almost certainly be less acrimonious than it was in 1992. Then, the council had been expanded from 30 to 51 seats, and sharp fights broke out over which seat would go where. Dominicans succeeded in carving out a district in Washington Heights, while Asian activists were unable to craft a district that would elect a Chinese representative from lower Manhattan.

This year, population shifts mean that some parts of the city, such as northern Queens, will gain representation, while others such as Central Brooklyn could lose The fights about precisely how those districts are redrawn could echo the disputes over state districts.

Together, Council Minority Leader Oddo and Mayor Bloomberg will make 10 appointments to the redistricting commission, meaning Republicans could hold two-thirds of the seats on the panel to redraw an overwhelmingly Democratic city. But even if Bloomberg, as well as Oddo, appoint all Republicans, they will be hard-pressed to radically change the current party alignment on the council where Democrats outnumber Republicans 47 to 4. "The best case GOP scenario would be to make several seats now held by Democrats into ´fair fights,'" reports "The Crain's Insider."

But, the redistricting in the city will be hard fought,. "It's going to be contentious because you're dealing with the interests of a number of groups," says Douglas Muzzio of the Baruch School of Public Affairs. These include incumbent councilmembers and those who seek to replace them, as well as members of racial and social groups hoping to gain political power. And how the lines are drawn, he says, will have an impact on who gets services in the city.

At all levels of the redistricting process, the battle of the boundaries is vital to politicians and groups seeking to preserve or enhance their political strength. "You are talking about the fundamental distribution of power," Muzzio notes, "and people, communities and other groups fight over the fundamental distribution of power."

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