Hundreds of candidates this fall are running in 213 state legislative districts carefully redrawn to protect Senate and Assembly majorities and reduce the influence of voters despite written promises to end the use of redistricting as a traditional tool of power in Albany.
About 130 incumbents who broke their pledge are counting on the historical, cynical view that voters won’t remember or will ignore the fact that those in power drew their own districts to stay in power. Since 1970, just over 40 incumbent legislators have lost their jobs out of more than 4,000 races.
Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch led the effort to overhaul New York’s once-a-decade redistricting process with his New York Uprising group, getting 300 incumbents and challengers to sign a pledge to create an independent body to draw nonpartisan election districts based on Census data, not political needs.
The big hammer, Koch said then, was that as a candidate, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had promised to veto the lines if the Senate and Assembly majorities continued to wield redistricting as a way to protect majority control.
“Everyone signed it cynically,” said Bill Samuels, founder the New Roosevelt good-government group and EffectiveNY.org think tank. “We had a governor who not only didn’t hold them to the pledge, but winked.”
Cuomo leveraged the key issue of new district lines to earn several of his own early political victories, before ultimately agreeing to the lines drawn by Republicans in the Senate and Democrats in the Assembly.
“Until we as voters let the governor and let the two legislative leaders know we are not happy about this,” Samuels said, “we have no one to blame but ourselves for not speaking up.”
Sen. Michael Gianaris, a Democrat from Queens, introduced a bill for independent redistricting more than two years ago and it seemed to have a mighty patron in the governor.
“This legislation, coupled with the recent effort by citizens groups — led by former Mayor Ed Koch — illustrates that the time is ripe for action,” Cuomo stated in his campaign book in 2010.
Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos, through a spokesman, said two months before the 2010 elections: “Our commitment is real. It’s genuine.” Republicans were seeking to regain the majority then, and criticized Democrats for being slow to make the pledge.
Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver never signed the pledge, as a matter of personal policy, but in May 2010 he committed to change the process to make races more competitive. He did not support creating an independent commission.
In the end, the Senate and Assembly leaders approved the new districts lines and made another promise: to pursue a constitutional amendment to create an independent process in 10 years.
Cuomo insists the long-term fix of an amendment effective in 2022 would be a permanent solution and better than vetoing the Senate and Assembly plans this year. Cuomo and legislative leaders negotiated a proposed constitutional amendment to create independent redistricting. If the Legislature fails to send a constitutional amendment to voters, a state law would kick in that forces a more independent process.
“The redistricting processes are specifically provided in the New York State constitution and they will be changed by the people of the state in a referendum next November, if the people so decide, and that is how our democracy was designed to work,” said Cuomo spokesman Rich Bamberger.
Koch called the lawmakers dishonorable and enemies of reform, even chiding them with, “Liar, liar pants on fire.”
“They failed in their obligations to their constituents,” Koch said Friday. “Regrettably, they won’t suffer any penalty for their chicanery.”
The effect of the new district lines on this year’s legislative races is “immeasurable,” according to Steven Greenberg of the Siena College poll.
“This is a state that is virtually 2-to-1 Democratic,” Greenberg said. “The only way the Republicans can continue to control the majority in the Senate is to draw the lines to their best advantage. They’ve done that.”
A month before the elections, Senate Republicans have five times more campaign cash than their rivals and are confident they will maintain their 33-29 majority, or even add a seat or two. Republicans also added a 63rd seat in their redistricting plan. It encompasses the district of popular Republican Assemblyman George Amedore, who was selected to pursue the seat this fall.
“These are fair lines that were upheld by the courts,” said Scott Reif, spokesman for the Senate’s Republican majority.
Republicans are quick to note that when the Democrats were in the Senate majority for one chaotic term from 2008 to 2010, they promised to enact independent redistricting that would level the field with Republicans, but never did.
The Republican plan includes a redrawn 60th District in Erie County, held by Republican Mark Grisanti, who narrowly won it. His district no longer includes most of its minority neighborhoods when it was represented by a black Democrat, Antoine Thompson.
“Republicans have thumbed their noses at the people of the state and manipulated the power for their own means,” said Gianaris, head of the Senate Democratic campaign committee.
There was less tension in the Democrat-led Assembly where Democrats have a much wider gap over their majority. Republican Assembly members squawked less, although some districts were clearly contorted to include some Democratic enclaves in Republican upstate areas, Samuels said.
In fact, 23 Republicans voted for the Democrats’ plan in the Assembly in a 98-44 while the Senate vote was along party lines.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.