‘Politricks’ in Redistricting: The Cases of New York and New Jersey by Nestor Montilla, Sr.

The New York State Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment has conducted its first round of twelve public hearings. From July to October this year, more than 19 million New Yorkers were afforded an opportunity to testify regarding how the new congressional and state legislative districts should be configured.

Those testifying were afforded five minutes each. Hearings were conducted during regular business hours starting at 10:00AM when most New Yorkers were at work. As insignificant as this may sound, this is only one of numerous examples of anomalous actions taken by current and past redistricting commissions reflecting their partisan proclivity. Actions range from the appointment of partisan members to having party control as an objective, and including everything in between: gerrymandering, drawing lines behind closed doors by politicians themselves, drawing in or out residences of incumbents and/or opponents, drawing districts to punish incumbents who challenge party in power, etc. To remedy these gimmicks or politricks, states should enact swiping reforms and establish independent non-partisan redistricting commissions.

In 2002, the New York State Task Force re-drew Senate District 30 and re-named it District 31 to allegedly reflect demographics changes as reported by the U.S. 2000 Census.

The District was redrawn from 53.25% to 57.43% Latino, to make incumbent Senator Eric Schneiderman vulnerable to a Latino challenger, said Greg Sargent in article “West Side Story: Drawing district to boost a rivalry” published by the New York Observer on April 22, 2002. As the head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, Schneiderman was pivotal in fundraising money for Democratic candidates; he also targeted for defeat key Republican incumbents including his counterpart, Bronx Senator Guy Vellela, who was chair of the G.O.P. Statewide Senate Campaign Committee.

Schneiderman’s political aim was seen by Republicans as a threat to upset the power arrangement in the State Capitol where Democrats control the Assembly, Republicans control the Senate and consequently the redistricting process. The Task Force manipulated the redistricting process and drew District 31 majority Hispanic to punish Senator Schneiderman.

In the State of New Jersey, with a population of roughly 9 million people, the redistricting process put the spotlight on the 1.6 million Latinos. This growth, equivalent to 17.7% of the state population, had exceeded anyone’s expectations. How the reapportionment commission would handle representation of Latinos became the central issue of its assignment.

As the commission and advocates for Latino representation went through the process – appointment of commission, hearings, the selection of the 11th member, proposed maps, etc. – two barriers to fair Latino representation emerged.

First, Latinos were in districts dominated by the Democratic Party, and were also shifting to Republican dominated districts. In both cases, Latinos were represented by non-Latino incumbents.

Due to their number and voting clout, Latinos became a threat to incumbents of both parties; incumbent protection became a priority of the parties and the Commission on Redistricting. Although the Latino population had increased dramatically, the new maps protected white incumbents in a highly partisan political process.

The Dominican American National Roundtable (DANR) and the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey (LLANJ) advocated for Latino Majority-districts that would follow the example of Assembly District 33, a district that had produced 40% of the Latino representation in New Jersey legislature. Apparently, this was the only district where Latinos could advance in the Democratic Party.

Several areas such as the cities of Newark, Elizabeth, Paterson and Passaic were identified as having the potential to replicate this model. Senate and assembly districts could be drawn around the Latino population in these areas resulting in the creation of several majority-Latino districts. The destabilizing effect this would have had on incumbents, especially Democrats, was apparent. This strategy would have the unintended outcome of providing Republicans with their desired change in leadership in the legislature.

Democrats proposed a map that spread Latinos among several districts, strengthening their influence in general elections, but weakening it in primary elections where candidates are selected. Democrats’ map split District 33, taking it from 53% to 44% Latino. The district is no longer a majority Latino district. This was done to protect a white Assemblywoman, Joan M. Quigley (D), Majority Conference Leader, who later retired.

And the second barrier is dual office-holding.

There are six multiple-office holders in New Jersey; all white males and Democrats representing heavily Latino districts. They include Senator/Assemblyman Paul Sarlo, Assemblyman/Councilman Gary Shaer, Assemblyman/Freeholder Ralph R. Caputo, Senator/Mayor Brian Stack, and Senator/Mayor/Superintendent Nicholas Sacco.

Should each of them give up one office, Latinos could get closer to fair representation in New Jersey. As the cases of New York and New Jersey show, the prevailing factor in the reapportionment process is ‘politricks’, not fair redistricting for fair representation for the people. Sweeping nonpartisan independent redistricting reform is in order.

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