Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch attends the celebration of his 85th Birthday at the Bryan Cave LLP Celebration at the St. Regis Hotel on November 18, 2009 in New York City.
Four politicians aspiring to be New York Governor next year have promised to veto any redistricting that continues to favor incumbents and protect a majority party's control of the Senate, Assembly and congressional delegation.
Former Mayor Ed Koch and his "New York Uprising" group secured the commitments Monday from Rick Lazio, Steve Levy and Carl Paladino, all seeking the Republican nomination for governor. Even New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo sent Koch a letter expressing a similar commitment -- although Cuomo hasn't officially announced he's running for Governor.
The next phase will target candidates for the Senate and Assembly. They will be asked to sign the pledge, but only after they pass a budget that is now almost three weeks late.
"The opportunity to elect candidates on the basis of competence and ideas, rather than party and geography, can have a seismic impact," said Koch. "This is the first real step in restoring the people's faith in their government."
The politicians promised to veto districts drawn by the political parties leading the Legislature, which often shape election district lines to give the majority party an advantage. The Legislature could try to override a veto, but that would require a two-thirds vote. In the Senate, that would currently require the agreement of minority party Republicans.
Currently, Democrats control the Legislature and New York's congressional delegation.
In addition to a veto, the politicians also committed to a new redistricting system. It would require an independent, nonpartisan commission to draw districts that would avoid splitting counties and county subdivisions, wouldn't split villages into different election districts and would "unite communities of interest." The new lines would also face public hearings statewide and would be made available on the Internet.
Redistricting — done every 10 years after the federal Census — was intended to make sure racial and ethnic minorities have a voice in elections. But for decades, the process has been used by majority parties to redraw lines so districts are dominated by their voters. When incumbents have found themselves after 10 years in a district with the other party's enrollment growing, some famously contorted districts have been drawn, including narrow strips spread over several counties, to include enough friendly voters.
Advocates of better government saw promise in the pledges, but know that such efforts to strike at Albany's political power have failed before.
"Safe, gerrymandered seats held by incumbents loyal to legislative and party leaders allow legislators to cater simply to partisan extremes and special interests as opposed to being forced to reach out to the middle to find the common ground needed to solve our state's ills," said Dick Dadey of Citizens Union.
Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group says New York Uprising's provisions mirror a bill already introduced by Democratic Assemblyman Michael Gianaris of Queens and Democratic Sen. David Valesky of Madison County.
"There's no way redistricting reform will occur unless the new governor promises to veto the district lines," Horner said. "That's the loaded gun pointed at the heads of legislative leaders. With the governor on board, there's a chance of reform."