West Side Story: Drawing District to Boost a Rivalry

State Senator Eric Schneiderman, a tall, tanned Democrat who is reviled by his Republican colleagues because of his energetic campaign to put them out of work, was strolling across the concourse of the state Legislative Office Building in Albany recently when a Senate staff member buttonholed him. The staffer-“one of the few Republicans left who talks to me,” as Mr. Schneiderman put it-wanted to explain why Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno and other state Republican leaders had redrawn his West Side district to shrink his white liberal base and increase the number of Latino voters, suddenly making him vulnerable to a primary challenge from a Hispanic Democrat.

“He said, ‘Look, these guys want you sucked into a primary every two years,'” Mr. Schneiderman recalled. “The tone was kind of, ‘You schmuck, what do you expect?'”

Mr. Schneiderman, a young Harvard Law School graduate who looks like any of a dozen daytime-TV actors, has long taken great pleasure in complaining that Republicans are out to get him because he ran an aggressive campaign to unseat G.O.P. Senators in 2000. But now, Mr. Schneiderman’s allies say, the threat has taken a dramatic new turn. The Senator is facing a likely primary challenge from a popular ex–City Council member, Guillermo Linares of Washington Heights. And some Democrats see in the possible Linares candidacy a multi-layered plot-one involving leaders of both major parties-to sink Mr. Schneiderman. Upstate Republicans, they maintain, are collaborating with a longtime enemy of Mr. Schneiderman, former Bronx Democratic boss Roberto Ramirez, in an effort to dispatch Mr. Schneiderman for good.

The scenario goes like this: Just after Republican leaders redraw Mr. Schneiderman’s district to make him vulnerable to a Latino challenger, along comes Mr. Ramirez, who tacitly encourages just such a challenge from his longtime ally, Mr. Linares. (Mr. Linares didn’t return a call for comment.)

Although no one is suggesting that Mr. Ramirez had a hand in redrawing the electoral map, some Democrats think Republicans were kept well informed of Mr. Linares’ plans as they pondered Mr. Schneiderman’s fate.

“It’s clear to me that Ramirez and the Republicans are in cahoots to sink Schneiderman,” said Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, a Bronx Democrat. “Ramirez and the Republicans both hate Schneiderman, and they want to see him out of office. I believe they were in discussions as the Republicans drew up the new district.”

Upstate Republicans and Mr. Ramirez, however, dismissed talk of a plot.

“I have never, ever, ever had any conversations, discussions or smoke signals with Republicans about this,” Mr. Ramirez said. He added that Democrats who alleged that he was out to get Mr. Schneiderman were motivated by racism: “They are turning me into a stereotype and a bogeyman, because they want to stir up a frenzy of white voters by saying, ‘They’re after us!’ It’s shameful.”

John McCardle, a spokesman for Mr. Bruno, was similarly dismissive of a plot. He denied that Republicans were out to get Mr. Schneiderman. “We have more important things to be concerned about,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that he makes those kinds of statements. We drew these lines after hearings, input from communities, and consulation with the Governor and his staff.”

Either way, Mr. Schneiderman’s plight is a paradigm of sorts. His predicament mirrors the broader one facing white liberal Democrats in a city where demographic shifts are changing the makeup of their party. An archetypal white liberal, Mr. Schneiderman is seeing his base shrink in ways that will benefit ascendant minority politicians. What’s more, he may face a bitter, racially charged primary that could force Democrats to take sides, exacerbating the racial divisions that still linger from last year’s Mayoral primary.

“The result is high potential for division in the party,” said State Senator David Paterson of upper Manhattan. “Civil wars, particularly along racial lines, are always the most damaging.”

The redistricting agreement released on April 22 by Governor George Pataki and legislative leaders reconfigures Mr. Schneiderman’s district to make its voting-age population 53 percent Latino-part of an effort to respond to the city’s growing Hispanic population.

It’s a shrewd move for state Republicans. Latino voters are considered crucial swing voters in New York and around the country, and they are part of Mr. Pataki’s emerging coalition as he tries for a third term this fall. By redrawing Mr. Schneiderman’s district to make it more Latino, Republicans can speak the language of minority empowerment while making life miserable for an incumbent they despise. Even if Mr. Schneiderman survives a strong primary challenge this year, he figures to face another in two years, and another in four years. And the more time he spends on his own re-election, the less time he’ll have to plot campaigns against Republican incumbents elsewhere in the state.

“The Republican agenda is to get me into a primary every two years,” Mr. Schneiderman said. In a reference to Liz Krueger, who won Roy Goodman’s East Side State Senate seat in a surprise victory over Republican John Ravitz in a special election earlier this year, Mr. Schneiderman added: “They don’t want me to spend my time running around the state launching Krueger-like campaigns. This way, I won’t have time to recruit other candidates and raise money for them.”

Mr. Schneiderman paused, then said: “Frankly, it’s what I would do to me if I were them.”

Mr. Schneiderman is now resigned to facing a primary. “The first day after the lines were released, I called Guillermo,” he said. “He had sworn up and down that he would never run against me. He immediately started to back-peddle.”

To some Democrats, there’s no doubt that the redrawing of the districts was done in such a way as to make Mr. Schneiderman vulnerable to challenge. They note that the reconfiguration could have created a Latino seat without slicing into Mr. Schneiderman’s district.

“Eric has worked very hard to encourage and support Democrats who want to move into the State Senate,” said Ms. Krueger. “Are the Republicans unhappy about that? Absolutely. Does Senator Bruno draw the lines in the State Senate? Yes.”

The distaste among state Republicans for Mr. Schneiderman dates back to the summer of 2000. That was when Mr. Schneiderman, as the head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, quickly made it clear that he would ignore the unspoken protocol of Albany, which holds that no one should make genuine efforts to upset the power arrangements in the State Capitol, where Republicans control the Senate and Democrats control the Assembly.

Mr. Schneiderman, emboldened by the fact that Presidential candidate Al Gore was at the top of the ticket, targeted several longtime Republicans for elimination. One of them was Mr. Goodman, who squeaked past Ms. Krueger by fewer than 200 votes. (He later retired, prompting the special election that Ms. Krueger won.) Another prominent Schneiderman target was his Republican counterpart, Bronx Senator Guy Velella, who chairs the G.O.P.’s statewide Senate campaign committee.

A Major Annoyance

Mr. Schneiderman’s aggressive strategy proved to be a major annoyance. It forced Republican incumbents to campaign harder and spend far more than usual to win another term in the incumbent-protection program otherwise known as the State Legislature. What’s more, Mr. Schneiderman’s swagger grated on some old Albany hands. As The Observer reported last year, Republicans took to wearing buttons taunting Mr. Schneiderman for producing no winners in the 2000 campaign. Mr. Velella-who prevailed after a tough campaign-sent Mr. Schneiderman a package of tissues.

It was the effort to go after Mr. Velella, as it happens, that fed tensions between Mr. Schneiderman and Mr. Ramirez, who still wields considerable influence in retirement. Mr. Schneiderman recruited a candidate named Lorraine Coyle Koppell to run against Mr. Velella. But according to both Mr. Schneiderman and Ms. Koppell, Mr. Ramirez did little to help unseat the veteran Republican, spurring talk of a tacit alliance.

“I was extremely disappointed that the county organization would not try to defeat someone like Guy Velella,” Ms. Koppell told The Observer . “It was beyond anything I would have imagined.” Mr. Ramirez insisted that an aggressive effort had been mounted.

It’s that history which has led some Democrats to whisper of a plot to destroy Mr. Schneiderman. “As I learned in the 2000 elections, Roberto has close relationships with Republicans in the State Senate,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “It wouldn’t surprise me at all if there were some collaboration going on around my seat this year.”