News Coverage on Redistricting Local Standards
Many Eyes on a Fight in Nassau County Over a G.O.P. Proposal for RedistrictingPeter Applebome
MINEOLA, N.Y. — Even by the raucous standards of Nassau County politics, it was a wild day. Almost 200 residents, mostly minorities, trooped into the county office building for 10 hours last Monday to testify, shout, wave placards and threaten to sue over a redistricting plan being rushed through in record speed by the Legislature’s Republican majority.
“You are making a mockery of the American dream, and you are stepping on the 1965 Voting Rights Act,” one woman, Elaine Smith of Uniondale, testified at the only public hearing for a map of new county legislative districts that was proposed three weeks ago and was scheduled for a vote this Monday. “We have people who died for this,” she said later. “This is not going to happen.”
As things turned out, it will not happen immediately; a State Supreme Court justice ruled Thursday in favor of a Democratic challenge that temporarily blocked the Legislature from adopting the plan. Instead, the judge, Steven M. Jaeger, set a hearing for May 26, which may not leave enough time for Republicans to institute the map for this year’s elections.
In Nassau, once the province of a legendary Republican machine and now seesawing between Democratic and Republican command, redistricting can have huge consequences for both county government and state politics. But since Nassau’s plan was drawn up by the county attorney, John Ciampoli, long active in state Republican election and districting issues and an associate of the State Senate majority leader, Dean G. Skelos, this one has been watched with particular interest.
Democrats claim it is an indicator of how Republicans will approach state redistricting as a surge in minorities, typically Democratic voters, is changing the state’s demography and calls for independent redistricting by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Edward I. Koch and others seem to be floundering in Albany.
“Nassau redistricting is a preview of the Republicans’ plan to maintain their power through the hyper-partisan drawing of electoral lines,” said Austin Shafran, a spokesman for the Senate Democratic Conference. “Using the same players and the same overly political process, we will see the Republicans’ Nassau County power grab hurt people across the state.”
Republicans in Nassau said their map fairly reflected the county’s changing demographics. Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Republicans, said only his party had taken positive steps to achieve independent redistricting, albeit with a proposed constitutional amendment that would not take effect until at least 2022. “It’s the ultimate hypocrisy for them to raise this,” Mr. Reif said. “We acted to reform the redistricting process. They didn’t.”
Less than a month after the release of 2010 census figures, Nassau Republicans on April 26 unveiled a proposal for the 19 legislative districts that would move about 572,000 residents — 44 percent of the total — to new ones, put four incumbent Democrats into two districts, and split up much of the recognizable geography of Long Island, breaking the Five Towns, for example, into two Two-and-a-Half Towns.
Republicans say a new map was needed immediately because current districts, particularly the Second District — which includes the largely minority Village of Hempstead — have grown too large over the last 10 years, diluting minority votes. Their map combats that dilution, they say, and creates what could be a predominantly minority district in the southwest part of the county, in addition to the two that now exist.
But Democrats and many minority residents called that a desperate effort to preserve the Republicans’ 11-to-8 legislative majority, which would be in charge when a bipartisan commission recommends permanent district lines in two years.
They say the map was rushed through with no recommendations from the public, carves up minority communities like Hempstead and strands many minority residents in Republican districts. And they argue that the potential new minority district would have a smaller percentage of minorities than the existing Third District, represented by the longtime Republican legislator John J. Ciotti. The proposal takes minorities from his district to form the new one.
Certainly the demography is becoming ever less favorable for Republicans. As recently as 2000, non-Hispanic whites were 74 percent of the population in Nassau, down from 82.6 percent in 1990, and there were 94,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats. (In 1990, the Republicans had a 117,000-voter registration advantage.) In the 2010 census, whites were 65.5 percent of the Nassau population, and there were 26,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans.
Lawrence C. Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said the population changes in Nassau and elsewhere raised the stakes for Republicans.
“For Republicans, this is existential,” he said. “If they don’t maximize the strength of their incumbents and draw districts designed to give all their candidates the best chance possible, they are headed for oblivion based on demographic changes.”
The issue in Nassau is complicated by murky election statutes. Republicans read one ordinance to say that redistricting must be done within six months after the release of new census figures. Democrats say it is not due until 2013.
Even if the court rules in favor of the Republican plan on May 26, it is unclear if new district lines can be approved and put in effect before petitions for candidates go out on June 7. Republicans say that will give them enough time to go forward. The Legislature is likely to address the issue at its meeting Monday. Republican options include appealing the ruling and trying to move the plan forward without violating the court order.
Whether or not the proposal is scuttled, redistricting will proceed at a more measured pace two years from now, with public hearings and the appointment of a redistricting commission selected by both parties. But that will not change the demographic trends.
Bruce N. Gyory, a Democratic-leaning political consultant and an adjunct professor of political science at the University at Albany, said Long Island was a particularly vivid laboratory for the same trends being seen in New York City, the Albany area and cities upstate, like Rochester and Syracuse.
He said that statewide, the percentage of the vote cast by minorities would grow to at least 35 percent by 2020, from 29 percent in 2010. In Nassau and Suffolk, he said, slightly less than 20 percent of voters are racial and ethnic minorities. By 2020, the figure is likely to be 30 percent.
Still, whether demography is destiny, and whether Asians and Hispanics will join blacks as reliable Democratic voters, remains unclear. After all, Republicans retook the Legislature in 2009 as the county lost white voters. And redistricting grievances can go both ways. In Westchester County, the Republican minority is threatening a lawsuit over a map drawn by the Democrats, who control the county board 12 to 5.
Peter J. Schmitt, a Republican who is the presiding officer of the Nassau Legislature, said that in a county dominated by homeowners, the Republican vision of lower taxes and smaller government was a winning formula no matter the changes in race and ethnicity.
“I don’t care what your classification under the census, whether you’re white, black, Asian, Hispanic, whatever,” he said. “When you plunk down X number of dollars for a house, you’re feeling the pinch of high taxes just like anyone else.”
The current process of local redistricting does not offer the same protections from gerrymandering that the constitution establishes for state legislative and congressional districts. A constitutional amendment would ensure fair redistricting practices that would minimize gerrymandering, and prevent lawsuits.