Colby Hamilton, Writer, WNYC News
Colby Hamilton is a general assignment reporter. He originally joined WNYC as a political blogger. He's a proud graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
One of the main issues being discussed during redistricting is providing communities of interest--often meaning, in short hand, racial and ethnic groups--with political boundaries that give these under-served groups greater influence over who represents them.
Last week a coalition of social justice groups released draft maps for the state legislature seats here in the city. Asian and Latino-majority districts were carved out for both the Assembly and State Senate, while existing African American districts were kept intact. Today Common Cause, who has been pushing this issue, has an op-ed in El Diario on the need for more majority Latino districts.
"Where the lines are drawn have the power to influence whether a particular neighborhood or community will be able to elect the representative of their choice," Susan Lerner, the group's executive director, wrote in the English version. "Communities that are divided among several districts – as neighborhoods with large numbers of Latinos have been in current and previous district maps - find it harder to gather the voting strength to make a difference at the polls."
At the Congressional level there have been pushes to create both a Latino--predominately Dominican--Congressional district in Northern Manhattan and the Bronx. There has also been speculation that a 40 percent Asian district could be created in Queens.
We decided to see if that was possible. John Keefe, our map wizard at WNYC, dug through census data to carve out what would be a 40.3 percent Asian district.
A few things. First, race can't be the only thing used to create a political map, per Federal rules. This was the specific thing we were looking to do, and did our best to keep the district as condensed as possible. Still, as you can see, it's not the most visually pleasing map. Other groups working on maps they plan to submit to LATFOR, the legislative group drawing the lines, say it's possible to create a 40 percent Asian district that is more tightly constructed.
But what the map does illustrate is that it's possible to create such a district. More importantly, the Asian community in Queens is currently having their political potency spread over four different Congressional districts.
Steve Choi, executive director of MinKwon--an Asian American community group located in Flushing, Queens--took a look at the map. His group is creating their own, and he was particularly concerned about the push into Jackson Heights and Elmhurst area because of the Latino population there that would itself be diluted if only the Asian population was considered. He said they're working to create a unity map with other organizations to help preserve political strength across the various ethnic and racial communities.
Still, the exercise helped prove Choi and other activists' point. "The basic concept is that you can have a [Congressional] district that is 40 percent Asian American in Queens," he said.
The long-time exclusion of Asians in the political process has driven Choi and others to use this opportunity to push for better districts. "I don't think it's a stretch to say we have historically been disenfranchised just as many other minority communities in the state have been," he said.
While LATFOR hasn't been, in Choi's mind, particularly embracing of the push to create more Asian districts--he said the committee has said it is focusing on "the current political realities"--he feels the time is right for political lines to be drawn with his community in mind.
"It's realistic, it's possible, and its necessary to draw these districts in a way that's going to include our influence," he said, noting that he and other groups are keeping all options on the table--including litigation--to make that happen.
Next up: we'll be looking at the 11th Congressional District in Brooklyn and what it will need to take to keep the Federally protected African American population in the district at the levels it what was in 2000, despite major demographic shifts over the last decade.