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State GOP dances back from redistricting promises

Jan 26, 2011 8:53 am
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="200" caption="State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Long Island)"][/caption]Word is out that Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos may not comply with the promise he made that Republicans in the state senate would support an independent commission to redraw senate and assembly district lines for the 2012 elections. Henry J. Stern, the former New York City Parks Commissioner, reports on the development in his NYCivic blog, noting that the story has o appeared in City Hall News, a weekly publication.

"The entire Republican caucus in the Senate endorsed New York Uprising's proposal for an independent non-political redistricting in October," Stern writes in a piece entitled "Pants Heating Up." "The GOP Senators and candidates for seats held by Democrats were recognized for their decision by being authorized to use the New York Uprising logo and the designation "Hero of Reform". The approval by the group headed by former Mayor Ed Koch was valuable to Republican candidates, who won control of the Senate by the narrowest of margins, 32 to 30. Several of the seats won by Republicans were carried by margins of a few hundred votes. 29 Republicans agreed to the pledge, the total number of Republicans serving in the senate at that time. One Republican passed away early in July."

Mayor Koch has written several letters to Mr. Skelos, proposing a meeting to discuss compliance with the commitment to an independent commission, but has not received a response. Other politicians say that when the Republicans were in the minority in the State senate, from 2009 through 2010, it was easy to make promises which would never have to be kept unless and until they won control of the senate. They did win control in December 2010 when the last race, in Nassau County, was decided in favor of the Republican challenger over the Democratic incumbent, who had lost at the polls and appealed to the courts, which found no reason to interfere with the decision of the voters.

The United States Constitution (Art. 1, Sec. 2) requires a census to be taken every ten years, and the congress to be reapportioned pursuant to the results of the census. As a result of the 2010 census, New York State will lose two seats in Congress (going from 27 to 25 districts). Under the 1930 and '40 censuses, New York held 45 of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives. In the following seventy years, the New York delegation shrank by 44 per cent. Since present trends in the movement of population to the south and west and away from the rust belt and blizzard states are expected to continue, it is reasonable to assume that New York will suffer a further loss of House seats in 2020 and the years beyond.

Within the state, the population loss came upstate rather than downstate (New York City and suburbs) so the northern seats should be vulnerable. In the 111th Congress, there were only 3 Republicans in the 29-member delegation. In the 112th Congress, which has just begun its work, there are 8 Republicans, following a turnover of 4 seats upstate and one on Staten Island.

It is the State Legislature that draws the lines of the new Congressional districts. Since the Senate is Republican and the Assembly Democratic, it is likely that the results will represent a compromise between the political leaders of both major parties. Governor Cuomo has stated that he will veto any redistricting legislation that does not contain a provision for an independent districting commission. It will require some twisting for the three men in a room to reach agreement.

If they do not agree, the state courts will eventually take over the redistricting process (unless federal laws are violated). The court will bring in independent experts to draw the lines, subject to judicial review and approval. Equitable and reasonable district boundaries are usually unacceptable to both political parties. After the rivals see what the court has done, the Republicans and Democrats scurry to make a deal to create or abolish districts so as to protect their favorites and discommode their known enemies, rivals or potential adversaries.

The leaders of the Assembly and the Senate can use their power of districting to reward or punish legislators who do not obey their instructions, or who demonstrate undue independence in voting and sponsoring legislation. The leaders also determine the legislative payroll; giving ordinary members more or fewer staff members, depending on their fidelity to the wishes of the powers that be. They also award member items, for local improvements and expenditures, again on the basis of political subservience rather than community need.

Once in place, speakers or majority leaders are extremely difficult to displace, and a failed attempt at a coup, which happened in the Assembly in 2000, can result in the political destruction of the plotters, and a period of exile for those aware of their intentions.

This political dance must be performed at the same time as the Legislature grapples with a $10 billion budget shortfall. The fact is that honest, impartial districting does not cost any more than gerrymandering, so the issues we discuss are not questions about money. They are, however, issues of power, and those are often more difficult to resolve than situations were people can simply be bought off, some quite cheaply as a matter of fact.