Can legislative districts be re-drawn so that the bad guys don’t necessarily win?
Two former state leaders disagree sharply on that question. Former Governor George Pataki told me legislators would never consent to changing their districts to give a challenger a better chance to win.
But former New York City Mayor Edward Koch, leader of a new group called New York Uprising, retorted: "He’s dead wrong. This is the year they’ll agree to change the system because all incumbents are in danger. The voters are ready to throw them out and the legislators have to show that they’re ready to reform the government if they want to get re-elected."
Koch’s group, New York Uprising, has enlisted the support of four gubernatorial candidates. He’s seeking support from other legislative and congressional candidates.
Even before Koch testified before a state senate committee in Albany, he got into a scrap with the Senate President, Malcolm Smith. Smith told a group of fellow Democrats that, if they got re-elected, they could use their power to throw Republicans into political "oblivion."
Koch, a man not known for subtlety, fired a salvo at Smith: "What he said was absolutely dumb -- dumb even for himself. I mean if he was going to do it, you don’t announce it."
The re-districting issue will come up in 2011 after the census being taken this year is complete. Every 10 years figures from the new census are used to determine the future size and shape of legislative districts. Assembly members and senators will be watching the census closely.
Mapping out these districts has not brought out unselfish or moral behavior in the past. Indeed, if we go back to a man named Elbridge Gerry in 1812, we can trace the origin of the term gerrymandering. What Gerry did, to favor his party, the Republicans, was to carve out a legislative district that had the shape of a salamander. An artist added wings, fangs and claws to the drawing -- hence the term, gerrymandered. This odd-shaped district was meant, of course, to favor the governor’s party.
Dick Dadey of Citizens Union has joined Koch’s group. He testified before the Senate Investigations Committee the other day. He believes an independent redistricting commission can be formed to map out new lines for both Congressional and legislative districts that establish districts nearly equal in population. Minority rights, he says, would not be abridged or denied. And districts would not be drawn to oppose or favor any political party or candidate.
Dadey believes in one cardinal principle: "Elections are supposed to allow voters to choose their representatives but too often, in New York, elected officials have succeeded in turning the tables by drawing district lines that allow them to choose their voters before the voters choose them."
Another member of Koch’s coalition, Henry Stern, noted that 2012 would mark the bicentennial of gerrymandering. "I would hope that the election of 2012 will be the first held with honestly drawn competitive districts, drawn to enhance public participation and discourage manipulation by political bosses who would prefer a servile and dependent legislature."
Is all this pie in the sky? Koch doesn’t think so. He told me: "If the legislators want to hold on to their seats, they’d better listen to the voters. In Albany we need a commission that’s independent; we need ethics reform and a balanced budget."
And can the reformers win? Koch, who began his own career as a reformer and evolved gradually into an establishment mayor, says: "Absolutely! The reason we are going to win is because every incumbent is now an endangered species.
"This will give them an easy way to become a reformer."
After five decades of covering politics, it’s hard for me to believe that the entrenched politicians are ready to risk giving up power.
Yet, as any student of politics knows, the slogan "Turn the rascals out!" has long been a successful formula. The universal anger against incumbents does, as Koch points out, pose a danger to the establishment.
In this era when New York’s legislature is dysfunctional and often paralyzed, wily old Ed Koch may be on to something.
This year and next, reform may be in. For our politicians survival may depend on it.