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Democrats get blowback for congressional, state legislative district lines

J. Stephen Conn

The New York State Legislature is poised to vote Wednesday on new congressional district lines drawn by Democrats who hold power in both the Senate and Assembly.

Democrats are defending the new configurations, which deliver a blow to Republican House members, greatly altering four of the eight districts that they hold and making it far more difficult for them to keep or win the seats in November.

The district of rising GOP star and Staten Island Rep. Nicole Malliotakis would now include portions of Brooklyn, including the liberal Park Slope neighborhood. Upstate Republican Reps. Chris Jacobs and Claudia Tenney have been drawn out of their current districts. The new districts in which they would have to seek re-election stretch across vast swaths of hundreds of miles of territory.

And Republican voters in Long Island Rep. Lee Zeldin’s district would be diluted with the addition of Democratic regions in Nassau County.

Zeldin, who is leaving his seat to run for governor, said the Democrats are ignoring the will of the public, who voted for a ballot amendment that created an independent, bipartisan commission to draw the lines. That commission gridlocked earlier this year.

“There should be regret for not recognizing and respecting the will of the people,” Zeldin said.

State Republican Party Chair Nick Langworthy had a harsher characterization of the Democrats’ actions, calling them in a statement, “textbook filthy, partisan gerrymandering.”

Blair Horner with the New York Public Interest Research Group said both parties have been guilty in the past of designing districts to retain incumbents and repel challengers. But he said in this case, the Republican criticisms ring true.

“It’s gerrymandering,” Horner said. “Because gerrymandering means manipulating the boundaries to benefit a group. And they are here.”

State Senate Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris, appearing on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show,” defended the new lines. He said it’s no surprise that in a deep blue state like New York, the new lines would favor Democrats. And he said the same ballot measure that created the failed independent commission also placed constraints on manipulating the lines for political gain.

“As we unravel the gerrymanders of the past, that doesn’t make it a gerrymander of today,” Gianaris said. “These are districts that are being drawn fairly. And if they had been drawn fairly at the outset, this is perhaps what they would have looked like.”

He said Malliotakis’ redrawn Staten Island-based district is now more similar to the way it was configured in the 1970s, before decades of manipulation changed its shape to protect a Republican incumbent.

A listener to the program asked Gianaris whether Democrats might be justified in gerrymandering the lines to favor their party, since Republican-dominated legislatures in other large states, including Texas and Florida, are doing that to promote electing more GOP candidates.

“I’ll leave the political analysis to others,” Gianaris answered.

State legislative lines, which were released Tuesday, also favor Democrats more heavily than do the present lines.

Two new Senate districts are added in New York City, due to declining population upstate. One is majority Latinx; the other ties together Asian-American communities.

Upstate, in the Capitol Region and western New York, Republican Sens. Jim Tedisco and Peter Oberacker would have to fight it out in one district that merges portions of their current districts. In the Buffalo area, a new Democratic-friendly district includes both incumbent Democrat Sen. Tim Kennedy and Republican Sen. Edward Rath.

Gov. Kathy Hochul, who in 2012 lost her congressional seat after it was redistricted to more heavily favor Republicans, has not been publicly involved with this cycle of redistricting.

“The role that I will play is simply reviewing the maps after they have been reviewed by the Legislature,” Hochul said.

Hochul said there is still room for some “conversations” about the proposed new lines, but she said with ballot petitioning for the June primary beginning in March, there’s no time to waste, and she does not anticipate delaying signing the bills.

Republicans said they are likely going to court to fight the lines. Senate GOP Minority Leader Rob Ortt said in a statement that the Democrats' “closed-door map making is a shameless, partisan example of gerrymandering at its worst."

“We anticipate a court challenge,” Ortt added. “And are confident that a challenge will ultimately be successful.”

Horner said challenges to gerrymandered districts in the past have been uniformly unsuccessful.

“The courts generally cede the power to the Legislature to draw the lines,” Horner said. “And as long as the Democrats are working within the sandbox built by either the U.S. Supreme Court or the state constitution, they’ll be OK.”

If the lines are approved as planned, New York voters may be living with them for at least another 10 years.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.