3/11/11

Panel: Non-Partisan Restricting Won't Happen Unless We Make It

Tonight's Bay Ridge Democrats' panel discussion on redistricting reform and gerrymandering at Good Shepherd Church, moderated by Brooklyn Paper Editor Gersh Kuntzman, presented a formidably wonky panel that included former Village Voice journalist Wayne Barrett, now at The Nation Institute; Alex Camarda, Director of Public Policy and Advocacy at Citizens Union; Jerry Goldfeder, Chair of the Election Law and Government Affairs Committee of the General Practice Section of the New York State Bar Association and a Fordham Law professor; and The Hon. Henry Stern, former New York City Parks Commissioner, now Executive Director of New York Civic. 

Given the quality of the panel, it didn't surprise me that so many people came out in a rainstorm to hear what these men had to say about a subject as important as redistricting.

The two-hour discussion merely skimmed the surface of what Barrett, Stern and Goldfeder, who have been talking to one other across multiple venues for decades, collectively know about New York politics.

The panel generally agreed that non-partisan (or bi-partisan) redistricting is of no apparent interest to the New York State Legislature. State legislators may say they want a bi-partisan redistricting process, but have taken no action on a pending non-partisan redistricting bill. Nor have their leaders.

Republicans in the State Legislature, who are concerned only with retaining minority rule, have stifled the redistricting issue.

The Democrats, because they were too focused on their own personal greed when they had a majority in the State Senate, missed their chance to pass a bi-partisan redistricting bill in the last term.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in a departure from the power politics of his father and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, seems to be serious in his threat to veto any partisan redistricting bill -- but that's a moot point unless the legislature acts.

According to the panelists, it will take proactively lobbying state senators and assembly members to raise the bi-partisan redistricting issue: signing petitions or sending emails will not be enough. Unless voters show up in person and talk to their elected representatives about redistricting, it's unlikely it will get before the legislature.

In the absence of strong advocacy, political incumbency, which crosses all party lines and trumps every issue, will prevail by default, because it is the primary goal of every elected official.

One reason incumbents have so much power in Albany is that they so rarely face primary challenges, thanks to the deals that party bosses make. The twice-indicted Carl Kruger, who came out of Meade Esposito's infamous Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club, is a product of bossism.

Term limits, which would dilute the power of incumbency and curtail the influence of political bosses, might facilitate bi-partisan redistricting.

After a lively discussion about what gerrymandering is and isn't, the takeaway seemed to be that what constitutes gerrymandering is a matter of perspective. Depending on your partisan goal, gerrymandering can be seen as a force for good or evil.

The practice of gerrymandering always involves "packing, stacking and cracking" -- packing a group of voters into a district, stacking groups of similar voters into a district, and diluting the voting power of groups by breaking them up into multiple districts.

Although gerrymandering has generated a great deal of legal rhetoric, the only solid bottom line is the federal "one person, one vote" standard. The rest is essentially politics, and therefore hard to predict.

Because the redistricting provisions in the New York State Constitution have been held to violate the "one person, one vote" standard, and because it would take a constitutional convention to change those provisions, the state lacks a redistricting standard -- hence the importance of legislation.

Each legislative district, whether drawn on the federal, state or local level, is independent of every other district. There is no requirement that the various local, state and federal districts bear any rational relationship to each other, regardless of unintended consequences.

Postscript:  State Senator Marty Golden has announced the passage of a bill by the State Senate that would institute a bi-partisan redistricting process -- 10 years from now.

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