Backgrounder: How Redistricting Will Reshape New York’s Battle Lines

At long last, those little census forms that arrived in our mailboxes last year, the ones we were endlessly hectored to fill out and send back, will come to mean something: They’ll be used to redraw district lines for the 2012 state and federal elections. Already, legislators and their aides are poring over maps and eyeing their colleagues suspiciously, wondering who will get their pick of city blocks and who will get squeezed out.

In the meantime however, redistricting experts and politicos say that despite all of the breathless speculation, there is a whole lot of nothing happening for the next several months. Part of that is because despite the release of new population numbers for the country (308,745,538, thank you very much) and the state (19.4 million, third behind California and Texas, whoo-hoo!), we are still waiting on the granular, election district-by-election district kind of results that are required before any new lines can be drawn.  Here is how the battle will be joined in the days ahead:

THE DETAILS

The hard numbers, due out in February or March, will include ethnographic data that are especially necessary for what are known as voting rights districts, those districts which the Department of Justice says must have a majority of minority residents. 

In New York, there are five voting rights districts—all situated in the city. They are currently represented by Yvette Clark, Ed Towns, and Nydia Velazquez in Brooklyn, Charlie Rangel in Manhattan, and Jose Serrano in the Bronx.

WH ITHER THE NON-PARTISAN PANEL?

Once that data is in, the fight will be joined in earnest over whether or not there will be a non-partisan redistricting panel. Andrew Cuomo has said he will insist on one, and Republican Senate Leader Dean Skelos has signed on to Ed Koch’s pledge promising that he would back one.

However, this being Albany, the safe bet is always on inaction, and most of the political insiders interviewed for this article doubt that legislators will give up their right to draw district lines. However, considering the attention that this issue has garnered this year, expect legislators to at least acquiesce to demands by good government groups that the process be conducted with greater transparency.

THE TASK FORCE

Assuming there is not a nonpartisan panel, the legislative leaders in the state Assembly and the state Senate will appoint new members to an already existing commission know as LATFOR, which stands for the Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment. The first tea leaves worth reading will be sprinkled then.

Look, politicos say, at who winds up on that commission—those who make it are likely to be the favorites of Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and are likely to get exactly the districts that they want. Bronx assemblyman Carl Heastie is currently the Assembly’s appointee, although he will likely not be able to remain on the commission because of his role as head of the Bronx Democratic Party.

THE BATTLES AHEAD

Members of this commission and their staff can expect to have their ears bent and arms twisted by their fellow Albany legislators and by members of Congress. Although it is impossible to know yet which congressional districts will get squeezed, since New York is going to lose two Congressional seats, it is likely that the commission will try to consolidate two adjoining Republican districts into one and to do the same for two adjoining Democratic districts.

“The battles within parties are always more fierce than those between the parties,” said redistricting attorney Richard Emery. The most likely targets for consolidation are districts represented by either retiring legislators or by districts represented by new legislators who do not yet have the clout in Albany to be protected by the commission.

Although there has been some speculation that three districts in Queens—those represented by Carolyn Maloney, Joe Crowley, and Gary Ackerman—could be squeezed into two, it’s more likely that downstate districts will be left alone, since it is upstate districts that lost population. Instead, Republicans could try to cram as many Democrats into Democratic districts in and around New York as possible in order to make areas upstate more amenable to the G.O.P.

LOCAL HEROES

The real shenanigans however will occur in the drawing of lines for the Assembly and the Senate. There, legislators who have irritated leadership could find that they no longer live in the district they represent, or that they suddenly represent a district packed with members of the opposing  party. Because the Senate is so closely divided, insiders say it is the body more likely to employ the kinds of tactics that make the good government groups blush. Ten years ago, Republicans redrew lines to favor their strengths upstate and added another seat to the chamber in order to increase their chances of holding on to the last bastion of G.O.P. power. Look for the Republicans to try to carve out a district that preserves Mark Grisanti, who just won in an upset over Democratic incumbent Antoine Thompson, and to consolidate their gains in Nassau County, where Republicans just ousted two Democratic senators eyeing comebacks in 2012.

For the most part, experts say, the Senate Republicans will exercise near total control over how the lines in their body look, and Assembly Democrats will be able to draw lines for their conference without interference.

GOING PUBLIC

After LATFOR comes up with a report, a number of public hearings will be held around the state, giving citizens a chance to weigh in and giving legislators who have been squeezed out another chance to make their case.

Sometime in March of 2012 a draft report will arrive on the desk of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who can sign-off or send it back to LATFOR for revision. A final deal must be approved by the Department of Justice.

Because these matters are so sensitive to professional politicians, seldom has redistricting been resolved without the matter going before the courts. The last several redistricting fights have in fact either been decided by the judiciary—or the threat of them being decided by the judiciary has forced legislators to come to a resolution.

Regardless, the lines must be firmly in place by the summer of 2012. That, of course is when pols and their allies hit the streets again for petitioning.

 

  Backgrounder: How Redistricting Will Reshape New York’s Battle Lines