JUMPING INTO NEW YORK’S REAPPORTIONMENT (REDISDTRICTING) DEBATE.
Every new decade, we are forced by various constitutions (federal and state), court decisions, legal frameworks, local charters, and other socio-economic-cultural-political precedents, to do a census count. This is essentially a precursor to reapportioning lines for legislative (and election/EDs) districts: on all levels of government (federal/state/local). You can say that it’s a tradition now.
Let me qualify that census counts are not used only for redistricting/reapportionment. It has become a tremendous tool/weapon in the arsenal of politicians, planners, pusillanimous-people, programmers, prostitutes, pimps, prognosticators, priests, policy-makers and the like.
You can also say that traditionally there are fights (expectedly) around issues dealing with redistricting/reapportionment. It can be rather contentious. It can be mind-boggling. The lengths that individuals in both the republican and democratic parties go to maintain power is something worthy of intellectual examination and meticulous scrutiny. The hope being (of course), that the more we study this as a phenomenon, the better the chances that we will eventually get to do it right.
Back in 1812, the governor of Massachusetts was a democrat named Elbridge Gerry. In the redistricting brouhaha, he carved out a peculiar salamander-shaped district north of the city of Boston; in order to enhance the democrat’s chances for maintaining legislative and political power. Eventually the term “gerrymandering” was introduced to the political lexicon after Governor Gerry’s exploit. In modern day it is used to describe strange-shaped maps, essentially drawn to either protect incumbents or political parties in power; and also to enhance the chances for minority representation in the legislative branch of government. Some maps can look like a chicken-foot. I have seen them. Some are triangular; some rectangular; some a just simply strange in shape.
In the landmark 1960 federal Supreme Court case (Gomillion v. Lightfoot), jurists struck down as unconstitutional, and the “obscene 28-sided boundaries of Tuskegee, Alabama”: since blacks were being excluded from a major city; and thus being disenfranchised. As you can see, that was 52 years ago. It shows you how long we blacks have been fighting these battles that won’t go away.
The challenge for political-mapmakers has always been how to mediate between competing (and sometimes conflicting) interests seeking representation in the corridors of power. Over time, these interests have been cultural, economic, racial, ethnic, nationalistic, gender-specific, religious and the like. It’s the recurring decimal in US politics. Nowadays you can even add sexual orientation, sexual /gender identification, etcetera, to the milieu. We more we break up into self-identifiable groupings, the more complex the political demands and accommodations become.
Historically speaking, Caucasians have dominated the legislative process all over this country. In New York City, whites make up roughly one-third of the population. It has been more than six decades since whites held an enumerative majority in this city; but in the city council whites still hold on to a dwindling half of all the members. There has never been a non-white person heading up (speaker) that body.
In New York State we have ALWAYS elected Caucasian-male governors. The one non-white-male governor was David Paterson- a black man who was elevated from lieutenant-governor after the elected governor (Spitzer) scandalously resigned in disgrace. In New York State the non-white population is close to forty percent. This is not reflected in the bi-cameral state legislature: do the math.
In New York, the population-variety on display (people originated from all over the world) has led to modern-day demands for inclusion, empowerment, political-representation, respect and recognition, coming from Blacks (from all over the world), Hispanics/Latinos, Asians (of all ilks), Jews, Arabs, Caribbean-Americans, etcetera, etcetera. You would expect that mapmakers would be highly sensitive to all this: but no. For decades white mapmakers from both major parties have ignored many of these demands. Through processes known as “cracking”, “stacking” and “manipulation”, they have diluted the political potential of minorities throughout the state. In Long Island for example, areas that are heavily populated by minorities have been split up into many pieces, so as to avoid the chances for more minority-representatives there. It has been an example of blatant racism made into a re-districting tradition. It has happened in both Nassau and Suffolk counties. It also happens in one or two areas upstate. It is especially prevalent in areas going through gentrification of sorts.
In the city itself, the heavy concentrations of minority-populations could yield more minority-representatives, if only lines were drawn more fairly and /or favorably. It’s time for equity. It’s time for balance. At the south-eastern end of Brooklyn for example, two seats (41Ad and 59AD) can be drawn -one with a majority white population, and the other with a majority black population- to equalize chances for balance. However, these seats have traditionally held slim white pluralities (slightly over 50 per cent), with large minority numbers in tow. To do this, the surrounding districts have had to entertain strange shapes: like an upside-down “V”, in one instance. Both seats are represented by whites. Despite their population (demographics), the assembly districts numbering 41, 42, 44 and 59, have never held minority representation, in the 355-year history of the state legislature. There are similar districts, with similar histories, scattered all over this great state.
In Queens we see examples of inter-party arrangements being placed ahead of increased chances for minority representation. In the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Staten Island, we can see the same patterns re-emerging ad infinitum.
Last week the preliminary lines (maps) were released for both state senate and state assembly districts. Conspicuously missing were the congressional lines: but I guess that’s for another column. It was the same old same old. Senate republicans divvy up the senate lines unfairly; while assembly democrats do the same to the assembly. They don’t even try to disguise this anymore. They leave it naked and bare with the long-dong showing. UUGGHH!!!
The republicans even had the audacity to create a new senate seat (63rd), in a heavily republican part of upstate New York. And they did this despite the fact that upstate New York has been losing population (relative to the rest of the state) for decades now. They also keep the populations in upstate senate districts comparatively smaller to those drawn downstate: so much for the concept of trying to have each vote weighed equally. Look; democrats aren’t much different. Let’s not judge only along party lines. It is a pox on both houses. That’s why I have perpetually called for term limits for our state legislators. They are far too entrenched for far too long.
To enhance their respective chances of holding on to power, both republicans and democrats are quite comfortable in breaking up traditional neighborhoods into three and four (or more) parts at times. They also criss-cross waterways to link odd-shaped districts. They criss-cross highways and byways. They trade street corners like turf in drug wars. They configure ways to add and subtract votes based on registration and party-identification. They make deals with the devil and his helpers if needed. It’s a sad sad process. It’s like watching two hugely obese people trying to make love in a porno flick. The only good thing is you can turn off the porno flick at the tiny moment it disgusts you: unfortunately we are all stuck with the redistricting process. We need to do something about this: like yesterday. It’s becoming nauseating.
It’s time for Governor Andrew Cuomo to intervene. It’s time for the legislature to set up a non-partisan commission to draw up these lines every ten years. It’s time for activists to hit the streets. It’s time for the lame stream mainstream media to evoke a conscience in mapmaker-legislators through sustained editorial pressure. It’s time for the feds to intervene if Cuomo wouldn’t (or couldn’t): either the Justice Department or the federal court. It’s time.
With elections around the corner, we need to finalize the new lines as soon as possible. Now that the possibility exists for NY to arrive at five different election dates this year, is it any wonder that voter-participation in this state continues to decrease? It appears that common-sense is lacking in Albany.
To lead the movement for reform (including term limits), I may just have to run for public office again this year. Wish me luck y’all. I am going to need it.
Stay tuned-in folks.