NY Redistricting Plan Gets an Earful in Queens

Tuesday was the latest in a string of public hearings statewide by the Senate and Assembly redistricting task force which must be approved within weeks by the Legislature or by the courts

By Michael Gormley
|  Wednesday, Feb 8, 2012  |  Updated 6:27 AM EDT
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Democratic Sen. Michael Gianaris on Tuesday told a packed redistricting hearing that the Senate's Republican majority has brought "shame" to New York by proposing blatant gerrymandering in a continuing plot to protect its power.

In the sometimes raucous redistricting hearing in Queens, Gianaris accused the Republican senators of presenting intentionally atrocious lines statewide earlier this month to intentionally draw Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo's veto. Gianaris said that will be followed soon by slightly improved lines that become law with the approval of Cuomo, a close ally of the Republican majority on fiscal issues.

"Gentlemen, your actions have embarrassed yourselves and brought shame to the state of New York," said Gianaris. He is one of a half-dozen Democratic senators pitted against other in the Republicans' proposed districts. Gianaris, head of the Senate Democrats' campaign committee this election year, would no longer live in the district he represents under the Republican proposal.

Senate Republicans immediately called Gianaris and the Democrats hypocrites for criticizing the redistricting process that the Democrats chose not to change during their brief control of the chamber from 2008-10. A Democratic leader at the time, Sen. Malcolm Smith of Queens, said then that he and his colleagues would redistrict Republicans "into oblivion."

Cuomo and Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos have denied any deal on redistricting that would protect the Republicans' 32-30 majority. On Feb. 1, Cuomo told reporters that redistricting proposal is "wholly unacceptable," he will veto the current proposal, and he indicated he won't sign a revised redistricting proposal short of an overhaul. Republicans created a 63rd seat in mostly Republican upstate towns as part of their proposal.

The Senate's Republican majority said its proposed lines comply with all voting rights acts and protect the voices of minority voters. Some Asian groups praised the proposed Senate district in Queens. It would be the first such district dominated by Asian-Americans and could lead to election of an Asian-American senator.

"Senator Gianaris knows that the Senate Democrats had two years to act on independent redistricting, but they never made it a priority," said Senate Republican spokesman Scott Reif. "Senate Democrats who claim to support independent redistricting now openly bragged about redistricting Republicans into oblivion when they were in the majority. The truth is the senator's comments today were dishonest and utterly hypocritical."

Tuesday was the latest in a string of public hearings statewide by the Senate and Assembly redistricting task force which must be approved within weeks by the Legislature or by the courts. Several residents representing Asian, black and other residents of Queens, most of them critical of the proposals they say divide neighborhoods with similar racial and economic characteristics.

The hearing was carried statewide in fuzzy images and sometimes choppy audio transmitted by an iPad by the Senate Democratic conference.

Under redistricting, the Senate majority and Assembly majority use census data to redraw election districts to be used for the coming 10 years using updated census data and the requirements of voting rights acts aimed at giving minority voters districts in which they are the majority of voters.

Every senator pledged during the 2010 elections to create an independent commission to redraw lines to end the tradition of majorities redrawing lines to protect their power by stacking districts with their voters. The Senate Republicans, after campaigning on the pledge, dropped that effort once they won the majority and promise instead to pursue a constitutional amendment that could create independent redistricting in 2022.

The Assembly Democrats, with a 95-51 majority, have fewer controversies stemming from their redistricting proposal.

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