Analysis: A Showdown on Reform in Albany

The clock is ticking -- and, by late January, there must be legislative action to draw district lines.

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    For years, legislators in Albany have benefited from district lines that almost ensure they can never be voted out of office.

    For years, reformers have tried to change the system so it more accurately represents the will of the people. And the question now is: will the forces for more democratic government win or lose?

    Every 10 years the government conducts a national census -- and it can have a great political impact on individual states.

    In a 2009 editorial, the New York Times laid it on the line, bluntly: “Of all the tricks that New York’s legislators use to hang on to office, the one that works best -- for the politicians, that is -- is redistricting. Mapmaking in Albany is a dark art form designed to make absolutely certain that incumbents in the majority party are safe from electoral competition [a k a democracy].”

    This suggestion that the process can be turned into an occult exercise resembling witchcraft is perceptive. Certainly the political bosses for years have been manipulating the processes of government to ensure that their candidates stay in office indefinitely. Often, major party leaders make deals with each other to keep their people in office.

    The word gerrymander originated in 1812 after a Massachusetts governor so manipulated a district that, when it was re-drawn, it resembled a salamander. The object: to keep the voters favoring his party in the district.

    Dick Dadey of Citizens Union has led a group of New York good-government groups in urging Gov. Cuomo and legislative leaders to fundamentally change the redistricting process. This coalition of reformers wants an “impartial” panel to re-draw districts with a clear explanation for why the boundaries were changed.

    The clock is ticking --- and, by late January, there must be legislative action to draw district lines. Cuomo has warned that, if the districts are not drawn to conform to population shifts and changes, he will veto the legislation. That could mean the issue will go to the courts.

    Dadey told me: “I’m concerned that we solve this issue in a timely manner. If the governor vetoes the bill, this issue could wind up in the courts. And its fate there would be uncertain. Judges have a tendency to avoid interfering with legislative actions.”

    Dadey said he was still “hopeful” that the Legislature could find a solution.

    Former Mayor Ed Koch, who has led a battle to reform the Legislature, is still optimistic that there can be great changes. He says he’s certain Cuomo will veto any legislation that doesn’t promise true reform. And, if it goes to the courts, I asked him: “Are you afraid that reform might be defeated?”

    Koch replied: “It depends on the judge. I think there’s a 50-50 chance the courts will decide that it’s time to enact true reform.”