Making Albany Serve Democracy — For a Change

Without redistricting reform, incumbents will only leave through death or indictment

History tells us that once somebody gets a seat in the Legislature, it’s mighty hard to push that person out.
For many years, it has seemed that incumbents can only be eliminated by retirement, indictment or death. Now our new governor, Andrew Cuomo, has introduced a bill that would drastically curtail the power of political leaders in the Legislature to keep their people in office.

The national census every 10 years is the basis for drawing new lines for legislative and congressional districts. The Assembly and the Senate in Albany have consistently drawn those lines to favor the people who already hold seats in these bodies.

Governor Cuomo has introduced legislation to create an independent commission to re-draw district lines. It could have a revolutionary impact on the Legislature -- by limiting the influence of political bosses over who runs for office and gets elected.

One of the governor’s goals is to eliminate gerrymandering, the drawing of districts in odd shapes so the lines embrace the voters who support the incumbent.

A basic question is how independent will this supposedly independent commission be. Under Cuomo’s proposal, the commission will consist of 11 members, four from each of the major parties and three so-called tie breakers, to be appointed by the other eight members. There are specific guidelines to ensure fairness.

Blair Horner of the reform group NYPIRG is impressed with the Cuomo bill. He told me: "It’s the best chance in New York’s history to change the process and the system. Cuomo has to hang tough to make it happen."

Horner explained that, if the Legislature passes a watered down version of re-districting, the governor will have to veto it. If ultimately the governor and the legislative leaders can’t agree, the matter next year would probably go to the courts. And some legislators are "terrified" at that prospect, Horner believes, because that could result in re-arranging districts, based on population, with little or no regard to political considerations.

"I’m optimistic," says Horner, "because I don’t believe the governor is kidding. He wants to put this through. It would be better to do this by amending the State Constitution but that process would take too long. This bill would go a long toward making a basic change."

So a real test is approaching. The question is whether the old style of leadership in Albany will survive. Dean Skelos, leader of the Republican Senate majority, and the Democratic leader, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, are astute political figures. If they decide that the political winds are shifting, they might find a way to make a deal with Cuomo.

If it helps democracy, with a small d, the people will benefit.

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