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The Empire

Should we be freaking out about congressional lines?

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LATFOR public hearing in the Bronx. (Colby Hamilton / WNYC)

[UPDATE: Judge Gary Sharpe ruled today that the Democratic proposed election calendar--see the Kellner-Aquila doc below--will be used for congressional elections. ]

The final public hearing in New York City on the draft maps drawn by LATFOR, the legislature-controlled task force responsible for redistricting, was in Queens this week. An earlier meeting in Brooklyn had reportedly brought out just a few dozen people, with the one in the Bronx appearing to be slightly better attended. The hearing in Queens, however, saw a line out the door a half an hour after the meeting started.

Inside, angry community members blasted the members of the committee for hours over what many in the room felt were maps meant to divide the ethnically diverse neighborhoods in Queens.

But the conversation was focused almost entirely on state legislative lines for Assembly and Senate. Meanwhile, the clock on the lines for Congress is quickly approaching midnight. A federal judge has set the primary date for congressional candidates up from September to June. So far, LATFOR has yet to release a congressional draft map.

Meanwhile, candidates are planning on running in districts that will look radically different than they do now—if they exist at all. And the leaders of the Assembly and Senate are sending mixed signals on where the state will lose its two mandatory congressional seats.

So should we be freaking out about congressional lines?

The Ticking Clock

First, there’s the question of what, exactly, is the time frame we’re looking at on these new lines.

As with so much in this process, it matters which side of the aisle you sit.

The state’s election commissioners submitted a calendar, based on the current requirements by law, to Sharpe. While the Democratic and Republic commissioners differed on the scope of their authority, they both identified the point by which congressional lines would need to be finalized based on the current schedule: March 6.

In a letter to Sharpe, the Department of Justice reviewed the statements submitted by the Democratic and Republican election commissioners. It disagreed with the Republican election commissioners’ “contention” that congressional district lines were needed before any firm calendar could be in place. Judge Sharpe, it said, had all the power he needed to make the congressional election schedule move ahead on time.

“The State’s failure thus far to complete its redistrict process should not interrupt the immediate establishment of an election calendar that ensures [federal law]-compliant election,” the letter said. “If the State fails to timely redistrict, courts can address that failure, in an appropriate case.”

Failure Is an Option

As it stands, LATFOR hasn’t tackled the congressional redistricting issue, despite the urgency.

That hasn’t stopped rumors and innuendos from leading to speculation on how the situation will shake out.

The first big piece is deciding which seats will cease to exist. Remember: New York grew slower than other places in the country and so must lose the equivalent of two congressional districts.

The prevailing wisdom has been you take one downstate Democratic district and one upstate Republican district and call it a day. But rumors have been flying about the possibilities.

The Daily News’ Ken Lovett has a piece today that says Long Island Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy’s district is on the chopping block. It’s not an unreasonable proposal on the surface; even Common Cause nixed a Long Island district in their maps partly because of population constraints.

But the key word there is “proposal,” as one Albany-based person close to the conversations noted, “They're trial balloons being thrown out there.”

Congressman Maurice Hinchey retiring gives the Dems an easy option for which district to lose goes one line of thought, and as Speaker Silver has said he’d like to keep the 9th Congressional District in Brooklyn and Queens, it means Republicans are looking at Western New York.

On Wednesday Republican State Senate Speaker Dean Skelos spoke with Tom Precious of the Buffalo News and indicated he believed the districts should come from downstate and Western New York:

"The population indicates that [New York City] should probably lose one and the loss of population in the western part of the state," Skelos said, appearing to cut himself off before specifically saying one of the seats should be coming from Western New York.

In the interview, Skelos also nodded to the immense crunch LATFOR is under to get lines done pronto.

“I would say within the next two weeks we have to get a plan done so we can get it to the justice department for their review of the voting rights counties in the city,” he said.

Paying, Praying to Play?

You could also take a look at who made donations to key players in the redistricting process to see who might be looking for some help with—or just feeling nervous about—the lines.

Many campaigns gave money to local candidates in the past year, as well as the state political organizations in the Senate and Assembly. But only three members of congress had their campaign committees give directly to the co-chairs of LATFOR. Congressman Paul Tonko, an upstate Democrat, gave $250 to Assemblyman John McEneny. To be fair, he gave to many other candidates, and McEneny is an elected official in his district.

On the Republican side, both Staten Island Congressman Michael Grimm ($1000) and Central New York Congressman Richard Hanna ($1050) gave to Senator Michael Nozzolio’s reelection committee. Nozzolio shares parts of his district with Hanna; Grimm, not so much.

Rumors Mill, Noses Can’t Find Grindstone

The reality however—based on numerous conversations—is that no one knows what’s going to happen. Because nothing has actually begun on congressional lines.

“[I]t’s rumor on top of rumor on top of rumor,” noted one Democratic operative with connections to numerous members of congress. “Nobody knows what the hell they’re talking about. Everyone’s full of shit.”

Given that reassuring observation, the answer is, yes, at the very least LATFOR should be freaking out about congressional lines.

There’s a real possibility that the legislature, which is primarily concerned with its own districts, will not have maps in time for the March 6 or some other judge-ordered date. This wouldn’t be surprising; as has been pointed out before, the past three times the state legislature redrew congressional maps, a judicially-appointed special master had to step in.

In each case the special master move prompted the legislature to act. But if Cuomo sticks to his guns on vetoing the partisanly drawn LATFOR lines (and that’s still considered a big “if”) there’s a real chance a judge will decide which member of congress you’ll be voting for this year.

Galvin Filing as Filed Court Doc 60

Kellner-Aquila Filing as Filed With Court Doc 61

DOJ's Response Ot SBOE Calendars 2-6-12