Taking conventional wisdom out of redistricting


Within hours of Bob Turner’s upset victory, pundits declared that the seat was “safe” from redistricting oblivion. Still others declared that Republicans would sacrifice Turner in order to preserve GOP rising star Rep. Michael Grimm.

Because NY will lose two congressional districts to faster-growing states, it was widely believed that Anthony Weiner’s former district would be eliminated along with an upstate district.

One diviner of all things political said that “conventional wisdom has turned on its ear.”

Conventional wisdom? It seems a lot more like groupthink. This blindly accepted groupthink simplistically assumes that New York City is a Democratic bastion and Upstate NY is Republican and therefore each party will agree to sacrifice a district in their domain.

This groupthink or “conventional wisdom” ignores the reality of the population shifts that have occurred within New York since 2000. According to the Empire Center, New York lost a net 1.6 million people to other states over the last ten years.

Young people have fled upstate NY while NYC, Long Island and the lower Hudson Valley have gained residents from other regions and from across the world.

Those who would argue in favor of conventional wisdom can not lose sight of the fact that downstate minority population growth has outpaced other communities. Blacks, Latinos and Asians account for over 40% of our state’s population.

Minority communities and voting rights groups must fend off efforts to stifle expansion of their growing political muscle via increased representation in Congress.

Some advocates believe that a sixth “majority-minority” congressional district can be created in the city. They are already planning to take this fight to the USDOJ, state and federal courts, and to the streets, if necessary.

Common Cause NY has already warned against an effort to torpedo minority communities in order to save white incumbents.

Those opposing the elimination of two upstate seats argue that State politics are already New York City-centric.

Bill Parment, a former upstate legislator, believes that New Yorkers should worry less about geography and more about seniority. Parment says that in the last redistricting, “we dumped about 60 years of seniority.”

In the last two rounds of redistricting, two former congressmen, both in their eighties were ousted. Presumably, this history does not bode well for octogenarians Rep. Louise Slaughter (D – Rochester) and Harlem Rep. Charles Rangel.

The fact that Rep. Slaughter’s district lost the most population over the last ten years does not aid her cause. The fact that she is a woman and has the most years of seniority upstate suggests her survival.

Rangel does not have to lose sleep over losing his seat. One, he’s dean of the NY congressional delegation. Two, he represents a voting rights protected district.

No one, however, wants to lose veteran lawmakers because seniority does count for so much in Washington. But it makes more sense for downstate city and suburban voters to fend off efforts decreasing our collective clout.

If two congressional districts must be eliminated then it should occur in western and central New York where population losses are the greatest, not downstate.

Collective congressional seniority is also the greatest downstate. Seven of the eleven upstate representatives (north of Westchester) entered office since 2009.

The best possible solution would involve creating two “fair fight” districts pitting Republican and Democratic incumbents against each other in each upstate region.

The Buffalo News has speculated that “fair fights” could be drawn up, with the most likely battles pitting either Democrats Kathy Hochul (NY-26) or Brian Higgins (NY-27) against Republican Tom Reed (NY-29); Democrat Louise Slaughter (NY-28) against Republican Ann Marie Buerkle (NY-25); or Buerkle against Democrat Bill Owens (NY-23). I would toss in a matchup pitting Owens against Republican Richard Hanna (NY-24).

Fair fight districts would offer competitive general election contests which reform groups have long demanded and lets the voting public decide. The previously accepted practice of each political party agreeing to eliminate a district is anti-democratic.

Such tacit agreements empower party leaders and special interests at the expense of the electorate. The often smaller primary election battles guarantee each party retaining political control of the district by eliminating an unpleasant incumbent. Party primaries are not representative of the general electorate.

Congressional redistricting should be based on demographics and geography, not age, personality or politics. Upstate voters should decide the electoral fates of their congressional representatives.

A version of this piece appeared in The Epoch Times, October 11. 2011.

About SquarePegDem

A former state legislator turned NY Post editorial board member, thought-leader, public affairs consultant and commentator, columnist and blogger. Michael has appeared on Al Jazeera America Tonight, NY1/Inside City Hall, FoxNews.com LIVE, YNN/Capital Tonight, The Brian Lehrer Show, The Fred Dicker Show, The Capitol Press Room, and The Daily Show. His op-eds have appeared in the NY Post, City and State, The Legislative Gazette, Bronx Times, The Troy Record, Buffalo News, and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. To schedule speaking engagements, email MBenjamin9@optimum.net.
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