Introducing the latest entry on the roster of endangered
species: the white, male, Democratic member of Congress from New York City.
Census figures released several weeks ago indicate that this
once-dominant breed may be headed for extinction in the new century. Because
the state’s growth lagged behind the nation’s, New York will shed two more
Congressional seats next year, and one of them will almost certainly be a
downstate district represented by one of the city’s disappearing white, male
New York City used to produce such white-ethnic Democrats as
Ed Koch, Charles Buckley and Joe Addabbo. In fact, of the 22 members of
Congress who represented the city in 1960, 16 were white, male Democrats. But
as Jews and non-Hispanic Catholics moved to the suburbs, minorities and women
have gained influence and power, leaving young Representatives like Anthony
Weiner of Brooklyn and Joseph Crowley of Queens, and even stalwarts like Eliot
Engel of the Bronx and GaryAckermanof Queens, in a harrowing scramble for a
piece of a rapidly shrinking power base. Right now, of the 13 U.S.
Representatives with a piece of New York City, only five are white, male
Faced with the knowledge that one of them very likely will
find himself out of work next year, these embattled Congressmen have hired
lobbyists, called in favors and begun spin offensives in an effort to influence
the State Legislature, which will draw the new Congressional districts. But
amid the current uncertainty, the only thing they know for sure is that at
least one of them-probably one based in the city-will be a private citizen by
the end of next year.
“Right now, the only way you’re 100 percent safe is if
you’re a black woman,” said one New York Congressman. “It’s just an immutable
rule of the road now.”
Aside from the city’s steadily shifting demographics, this
year’s redistricting process will be particularly hazardous for New York’s
white Congressmen for other reasons. When Albany’s legislative leaders and
Governor George Pataki gather in a room to redraw the state’s Congressional
lines and eliminate two seats, they will be constrained from tinkering
significantly with any of the carefully drawn “minority majority” districts
created over the last 30 years. Any such move would be likely to bring legal
repercussions-the Voting Rights Act prohibits the weakening of minority voting
power-and would be politically unfeasible for Democrats, who are as dependent
on the votes of blacks and Hispanics in Congress as they are on minority voters
The female members of the city’s delegation are thought to
be similarly untouchable: The non-minority women representing districts in and
around the city-Nita Lowey, Carolyn Maloney and Carolyn McCarthy-all knocked
off incumbent Republicans and are considered political assets for the state.
“Traditional politics has it that the last one hired is the
first one fired,” said State Senator David Paterson of Harlem, referring to the
old way of solving these dilemmas: seniority and the lack of it. “The problem
is that the new management in the city looks more like some of the last
hired-women and minorities-producing a situation where the other Congressmen
get caught in a game of musical chairs.”
As the decision-making process unfolds, one politico will
wield almost godlike power over the fate of the state’s Democratic districts:
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who represents the Lower East Side. As a
result, this most inscrutable, insular throwback to backroom politics will
become one of the most carefully scrutinized and sought-after Democrats over
the course of the next year. (Three people sign off on the redistricting
legislation, and two of them are Republicans: Governor George Pataki and State
Senate Majority leader Joseph Bruno. Albany etiquette dictates that Mr. Silver
will be accorded wide discretion over the fate of districts in
Mr. Silver has been
typically vague about his intentions, and he declined, through a press aide, to
comment for this story. But speculation in the legislative halls, restaurants
and bars of Albany has been rampant, and face time with the Speaker is suddenly
at a premium. Upstate Congressman Maurice Hinchey-a Democrat who is thought to
be in little danger-wasted no time hiring a lobbyist who, it could be argued,
has considerable influence with the all-powerful Mr. Silver. Mr. Hinchey’s
lobbyist is Patricia Lynch, who was Mr. Silver’s chief of staff until the beginning
of this year. Mr. Hinchey said he hired Ms. Lynch in part “to relieve [him] of
the tendency to always have a piece of [his] mind in Albany focused on
re-apportionment.” Similarly, Mr. Ackerman-who may be in more immediate
danger-has retained the services of another lobbyist with close ties to Mr.
Silver, Brian Meara. And other members of the white, male Democratic club are
expected to be making personal pilgrimages to see Mr. Silver, either in his
Albany chambers or at the Lower East Side kosher deli where he has been known
to hold court.
“Shelly Silver’s power increases enormously with
re-apportionment,” said James McMahon, an influential Albany lobbyist known to
political insiders as “Jimmy Cadillac.” “I know if I were a Congressman right
now, I’d be knocking on his door and ringing the bell with my elbow.”
Remember Steve Solarz?
The cautionary tale that is sure to drive even the most
experienced Beltway veterans to distraction is the story of Congressman Stephen
Solarz. Ten years ago, he was one of Capitol Hill’s most powerful Democrats and
an expert in foreign policy. He had represented a heavily Jewish district in
Brooklyn for almost two decades, and he regularly won re-election with well
over three quarters of the vote. But after the 1990 Census, New York had to
shed Congressional seats (as it has since 1960), and Albany Democrats were
seeking to carve out a Latino-dominated district. In the process, Mr. Solarz’s
district was essentially penciled out of existence, and he lost in a primary
election soon afterward to Nydia Velasquez. It was a stunning turn of events.
“My old district was
eviscerated, sliced up like nova [lox] thinly into six different pieces,
putting me into a kind of politically untenable position,” Mr. Solarz recalled.
“The courts and Legislature did to my district what [Sir Mark] Sykes and
[Charles Georges] Picot did to the Ottoman Empire after World War I.” (Mr.
Solarz, the reader is reminded, was known as a foreign-policy expert.)
All these years later, Mr. Solarz still questions the
validity of the 1992 redistricting. “The architects of re-apportionment went
too far, since the district they created was subsequently declared
unconstitutional by the Supreme Court on the grounds that racial consideration
cannot be the primary factor in shaping a Congressional district,” he said.
“In terms of the district I ran in, it wasn’t the primary
factor-it was the only factor.”
Although this year’s Stephen Solarz has yet to be
identified, there are several members who are thought to be in peril. One of
the most frequently mentioned names in various doomsday scenarios is that of
Mr. Crowley, who represents a heavily white-Catholic district of Giuliani
Democrats and was handpicked to succeed Queens Democratic boss Tom Manton, who
left Congress in 1998. One factor that may work against him is that Mr. Crowley
is more conservative than the state party leadership: He is pro-life and
staunchly pro–law enforcement. And political intrigue will enter into the
calculations as well. Mr. Crowley and Mr. Manton were on the wrong side of a
failed coup attempt against Mr. Silver in the Assembly last year, leading many
to predict that the Speaker will be wielding his redistricting pencil with no
small amount of malice in his heart towards the two-term Congressman from
Mr. Crowley, who served as an Assemblyman before he ran for
Congress, expressed confidence that his district will remain more or less
intact and downplayed reports of continuing differences between himself and Mr.
Silver. “I’m fine with Shelly, and my understanding is that things have been
put to rest between him and Tom [Manton],” he said.
Mr. Engel is also seen as a possible candidate for forced
early retirement. Representing a once heavily Jewish district in the Bronx, Mr.
Engel survived a racially charged primary challenge in 2000 from a black
candidate who had the backing of the powerful Bronx Democratic boss, Roberto
Ramirez. (Mr. Ramirez said that he was supporting Mr. Engel’s challenger
because he wanted “to change the political culture in the city.”) Like Mr.
Crowley, Mr. Engel represents a district that may not exist much longer. He
could also be hurt if his lines are redrawn to exclude the remaining white
voters, who would be welcomed with open arms into the district of his ascendant
neighbor to the north, Ms. Lowey.
But Mr. Engel-who sat next to Mr. Silver for a number of
years in the Assembly-also sees himself surviving the process. “You can devise
a scenario with anybody getting screwed, in plain English,” he noted. “But I’m
a good Congressman. I’ve brought home the bacon, and that’s why I won this
year: I’m valuable to the state. The Governor knows it and the Speaker knows
it. I run in a district that’s more than two-thirds African-American and Latino
and I win. Roberto Ramirez opposed me and I beat the pants off of him. [My
primary opponent] ran on the basis of race-’Our time is now, blah, blah,
blah’-and he lost. I would just like to think that this will all be done based
on virtue and intelligence.”
New Pecking Order
Whatever the criteria being used for redistricting, the
recession of the urban white male in New York seems relentless. And the pecking
order within the delegation is a reflection of changing times: Charles Rangel,
an African-American from Harlem, is the senior member of the state’s
Congressional delegation, and he would become chairman of the powerful Ways and
Means Committee if the Democrats capture the House in two years. And Nita
Lowey, whose district includes parts of Queens, the Bronx and Westchester, was
just named to head the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Edolphus Towns, a black Congressman from Brooklyn, predicted
that racial considerations would continue to be a guiding factor in
redistricting. “I think that the Voting Rights Act still plays a very important
part of this process,” he said. “Diversity should be an issue, and I’m hoping
that the fellows in the State Legislature will recognize that and govern
An expression of that very sentiment drew an enthusiastic
response at a recent Martin Luther King Day celebration at the Harlem-based
National Action Network. “The Voting Rights Act gave us minority members of
Congress,” exclaimed Jose Serrano, a Latino Congressman from the South Bronx.
“I stand before you as a direct result of [it].”
And what is happening in New York mirrors a national
pattern. The proportion of white males in the House of Representatives has
dropped steadily over the last 30 years, especially in the Democratic Party.
Indications are that this trend will continue when new districts are drawn
before the 2002 midterm election. “Minority districts will be protected, so
chances are whatever districts are lost in any state will be white districts,”
said Representative Martin Frost of Texas, who chairs the Democratic House
Yet there are certain members of Congress-including some of
the most liberal Democrats in Washington-who remain uneasy with the deliberate
and inexorable attrition of the old breed of politicians that once dominated
Democratic New York.
“If this is a trend, it’s a dangerous one, I think,” said
Mr. Hinchey, who has one of the most liberal voting records in the House. “The
guys who are being eliminated have a valuable reservoir of experience and
ability that they exercise on behalf of the state, and that ought to be a
“The Voting Rights Act was a reaction to an experience the
country went through in the 1950′s, with the realization that large numbers of
people of color were in fact underrepresented,” he continued. “But it may be
argued in some cases that while it was necessary, there was an over-response.
In some parts of the country, reconfiguration of districts based on the Voting
Rights Act actually reduced the number of liberal districts in Congress and thereby
cost the cause of racial justice.”
Mr. Weiner, who said that he is optimistic about his
situation, simply remarked, “You’d have to be crazy not to be worried about all
of this, and I’m not crazy.”
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