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.
The state legislature’s redistricting task force is holding public meetings this week in New York City. Today they were in Manhattan hearing testimony from elected officials, good government groups, and any normal people who were inspired to take a day off of work to attend the hearing.
Oh, and Ed Koch.
The former mayor, fresh off his party-crossing coup in the 9th Congressional District, came to shakedown the bicameral committee. He was joined by Dick Dadey, the head of the nonpartisan good government group Citizens Union, and former parks commissioner and founder of NY Civic, Henry Stern.
The Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research—known awkwardly as LATFOR—has been holding meetings around the state to get the public’s feedback on how the decennial process of redrawing the state’s legislative districts should go. Koch and his good government cohorts have been pushing for an independent redistricting plan for over a year.
The New York State legislature was unable to put together a plan before the end of the last session, and so the traditional process—the politicians in the legislature whose districts are being redrawn controlling the process—has begun. This hasn’t made Ed Koch particularly happy.
Last year he managed to secure pledges from dozens and dozens of candidates running for office that they would support an independent redistricting process. But that hasn’t happened, even as Governor Andrew Cuomo promised to veto any partisan-based redistricting plan.
The former mayor took Senate Republicans particularly to task in his remarks. Every Republican running last year signed the pledge. Now, Koch says, they’ve gone back on their word.
“Interestingly in the Senate, every Republican signed, but that was when they were a minority. When they became a majority, they repudiated their pledges,” Koch said.
“What you’re doing,” Koch told the committee, “is to draw lines to keep the incumbents there until they die.”
Reform advocates say they are now relying on Governor Andrew Cuomo to basically nullify all the groundwork the LATFOR committee has laid. They’re hoping he vetoes whatever proposal is put forward, kicking the issue to the courts. Koch said this didn’t have to be how things went down.
“We hope that the state legislature comes to its senses and say they’d rather be a partner of the process rather than a victim of the process,” he said.
The committee, not particularly thrilled with the mayor’s message, took him to task on a number of his more combative points.
“I think it should be highlighted that the Senate voted to establish an independent commission for redistricting,” LATFOR co-chair Senator Michael Nozzolio, an upstate Republican, said, adding that the fundamental issue was one of changing the constitution. “While we were in the minority, we did not see the Democrats who controlled the majority change the constitution—and they had enough time to do that.”
“We’re all for a constitutional amendment,” Koch responded emphatically. “But the pledge is for this election. It’s not for an election ten years for now.”
Dick Dadey, Citizens Union’s executive director, later praised the committee for individual members’ position on pending redistricting legislation. Many of them had introduced their own legislation or signed on to some version of a reform bill. But Dadey said that there was still “enough time for an impartial panel to hold the pen when those final lines were drawn.”
“Citizens Union and other are willing to work with the legislature and the governor to adopt a less-than-ideal approach for 2012,” said Dadey. He went on to describe a less rigid process for establishing a legislative leadership-appointed task force, devoid of current electeds, that would propose lines to the legislature.
“The criteria would not be as strong as originally proposed,” he said. “But sufficiently clear so as not to continue the rigged practice of political manipulation in the drawing of lines for partisan gain.”
While Koch, Dadey, and others may hope there’s still time for some version of an independent commission to draw legislative lines, others are arguing for a different approach. In an op-ed in today’s Times-Union, Common Cause’s Susan Lerner, broke with groups like Citizens Union, saying that “who draws the lines doesn't matter nearly as much as how they're drawn.”
“While it's clear that, all things being equal, a truly independent commission is the best procedure, we no longer believe that pursuing such a strategy to the exclusion of other important factors is realistic,” Lerner and her co-author, former Attorney General candidate Sean Coffey, wrote. “Despite the fact that 60 out of 62 senators, and 121 out of 150 Assembly members pledged to support independent redistricting, nothing has happened.”
Common Cause is now calling on LATFOR and the state legislature to implement districts based on two basic categories: keeping communities of interest intact and drawing districts blind to incumbency.
So far, despite the calls for a change in process, the process has gone on as usual. LATFOR’s hearings have been extended, but they will soon—unless higher powers intervene—be responsible for making recommendations to the state legislature. And that will mean Governor Cuomo, who is often invoked as the arbiter of redistricting justice, will have to decide whether to sign what the legislature passes into law.
LATFOR’s other co-chair, Assemblyman John McEneny of Albany, made it clear he hopes the governor takes a more balanced approached to the current process than most of today’s speakers. “My hope is that he would spend less time worrying about how and more time worrying about what the end product is,” McEneny said, referring to Governor Cuomo. “If it's a lousy end product, he should veto it. If it's a good end product, he should respect the process."