On January 10, the New York State Legislature voted down both Plan A and Plan B congressional and legislative map proposals, after the state’s bi-partisan Independent Redistricting Commission (NYIRC) deadlocked 5-5 between them one week earlier.
Every 10 years, across the USA, following the release of US Census data, legislative districts on all levels are redrawn. Some states gain congressional seats and some lose, to maintain 435 districts of almost equal population. Each state has its own redistricting methods, but all must follow federal guidelines, which consider population groups, geography and community, without racial and ethnic discrimination. New York election law also requires compact and contiguous districts. Political “‘gerrymandering” leads much initial reapportioning to be decided with judicial intervention.
Since 1978, the NY State Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment (LATFOR) has collected the data used for the state’s redistricting. In 2012, after complaints about the state’s redistricting process, the legislature proposed a state constitutional amendment leading to a mandated NYIRC to draw new districts for 2022. The Democrat and Republican leaders of the state senate and assembly each appoint two commissioners, and those eight choose two more, who cannot be Republicans or Democrats. In 2021, after New York lost its 27th House seat by fewer than 100 citizens, they released the two competing maps, along party lines. Several dozen local public hearings were held. They will have one more chance to redraw the lines, with a new deadline of January 25, before the legislature assumes the role.
The original “Letters/Names” maps kept Westchester’s congressional lines minimally changed. The Democrats’ plan originally moved Riverdale to Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s district from Rep. Bowman. However, in the next phase, lower Westchester’s communities, with significant Jewish residents, have become the center of attention. Under the rejected A and B plans, some municipalities, including New Rochelle and Scarsdale, would be represented in Washington by three different Congress members, including one district that could connect Westchester with both Bronx and Queens neighborhoods.
Synagogues of all denominations have joined the effort to contact senators and assembly members to maintain the suburban county’s independence from its urban neighbors. While religious and non-profit groups are prohibited from supporting specific candidates, community leaders are viewing this as a general issue and not specific to any one candidate.
Several shuls have asked their members to contact their representatives in Albany to let them know their concerns about dividing communities. In addition to 26 congressional seats, redistricting also affects all 213 assembly and state senate district maps.
A sample letter being circulated highlights “maintaining Westchester’s independent voice and not having it split apart and diluted by surrounding areas of New York City. The City of New York is a unique urban center with an infrastructure of its own, like none other in the state, and a set of issues and concerns that are wholly distinct from suburban communities like Westchester. If the commission is given the opportunity to propose a second set of maps, it should use that opportunity to unite areas of Westchester County.”
In 2002, redistricting drew then-Congressman Eliot Engel’s district in the shape of Michigan, connecting Riverdale through Yonkers to Monsey, crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge. Likewise, in 1992, Westchester’s Nita Lowey found herself representing New Rochelle through parts of The Bronx, across the Whitestone Bridge to Kew Gardens Hills. In 2012, these districts returned to more regular shapes. Elsewhere in the US, a 1992 district in North Carolina was drawn having Interstate 40 connecting two majority minority cities in a 160-mile-long strip. In the Supreme Court’s decision striking down that map, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor called the district’s shape “bizarre.” Just like the Lowey district 10-20 years ago, the current Bronx-Queens district held by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez would be extended to include all the Sound Shore communities of Westchester.
State Senate Democrat Majority Leader Michael Gianaris explained, “Unlike in many states around the country—Republican-led states that are gerrymandering for partisan reasons to their hearts’ content—here in New York we have specific restrictions against drawing maps for partisan purposes.” Gianaris was one of the sponsors of legislation that led to the NYIRC formation and is the current leader of LATFOR, which will take over the process if or when NYIRC misses the looming deadline.
With Primary Day set for June 28, candidates need to start the nominating petition process very soon, to know in which district to run, and whom they wish to represent. The coming weeks will have lots of expected political activity.
By Judy Berger