Fighting For Representation Battles On The Horizon Over Redistricting In Burgeoning Asian Communities


Congress.jpgQueens Tribune – A map is sometimes a piece of greenish paper with pretty red lines, or an innocuous portrayal of your hometown on Google’s bright screen. After the U.S. Census, a map becomes something else entirely–a fight for just representation, or more simply, a fight for survival.

The magic four letter word of the next few weeks will be “maps,” and the people and politicians of Queens are preparing for war, though the maps they plan to battle for have yet to be made public.

Already, a skirmish is underway between the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) and State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside). AALDEF, along with the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, and the National Institute for Latino Policy, came together to create a “Unity Map,” a proposal for redistricting Congressional, Assembly, and State Senate lines in the City. AALDEF, along with these other groups, seeks to take into account the shifting demographics in the 2010 Census, including the surge in the Asian population of northeast Queens.

The Queens Chinese population has grown by nearly 43 percent since 2000, and the Asian Indian population has jumped almost 8 percent. Overall, the Asian population in Queens is roughly 23 percent.

Avella said AALDEF is “gerrymandering in reverse,” carving up new district lines to fit ethnic enclaves without any regard for the existing communities. AALDEF shot back that Avella is misreading their maps.

“We want to work with Senator Avella,” said Jerry Vattamala, staff attorney for AALDEF. “We’re not for or against any representative. We’re working for the community so the community has a meaningful opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.“ 

United and Divided

Eastern Queens United, a coalition of more than 10 civic associations, has banded together to exhort the State Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment, a body of State lawmakers tasked with drawing new district lines, to unite the communities of Glen Oaks, Floral Park, New Hyde Park, Queens Village, and Bellerose into a single Assembly and Senate district. At a rally held on Jan. 12, Bob Friedrich, president of the Glen-Oaks Village Co-Op and an organizer of Eastern Queens United, asked Avella and Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Little Neck), along with Councilman Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens), to sign a pledge that they would vote against any proposal that would not entirely corral these communities into a single district.

“We don’t want to be sliced and diced,” said Friedrich. “We want to be in a single Assembly, State Senate, and Congressional district. We’re 75,000 people, this can easily be done.”

The communities Friedrich advocates for do share three Assembly members, Weprin, Ed Braunstein (D-Bayside), and Barbara Clark (D-Queens Village), though Weprin said he represents about “80 percent” of those communities. Friedrich, Weprin, and Avella are united, however, in their distaste for the Unity Map proposed, which AALDEF has argued is a fairer way to create districts that give representation to booming Asian voting blocs.

“I think districts will look a lot different than they do now,” Weprin said. “This is not necessarily a good thing. I know what they’re (AALDEF) trying to do; they want to create another Asian district. I don’t want to see an Asian district at the expense of a crazy gerrymandered situation.”

Queens’ Asian community is not the only group looking for more representation. Richmond Hill is represented by seven different Assembly members, four different Council members, two State senators and two Congressmen- none of them live in the neighborhood. The community is home to a large West Indian, South Asian and Hispanic population.

“They divide the neighborhood because we don’t stand up, we don’t unite,” said Gurpaul Singh of SEVA.

SEVA defined their “community of interest” as the neighborhoods of Richmond Hill, South Ozone Park, Ozone Park, and Woodhaven, a 240,000 person area composed mostly of immigrants from South Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. Currently, only Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) and State Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) live in SEVA’s “community of interest” borders and represent the area.

Underrepresented, But What to Do?

Senate District 13, extending from Flushing to Bayside, is a slice of the Unity Map that has especially irked politicians. The district would enable an Asian representative to be elected to the State Senate, which currently has none. Assemblywoman Grace Meng (D-Flushing) is the only Asian in the State Legislature. It would also, according to Avella, create a district that would not share common concerns; it conceivably could endanger Avella’s reelection bid, too.

“My hunch is that Asians are underrepresented,” said Dr. Michael Krasner, a professor of political science at Queens College. “Their population has grown so fast and districts haven’t kept up, in part because the districting procedure is not driven by fairness and participatory democracy. It’s driven by wanting to protect the interests of incumbent politicians and their parties.”

AALDEF, Avella, Weprin, and a host of other politicians also support independent redistricting, though it appears that the Republican-controlled Senate and Democrat-controlled Assembly have already seen the preliminary district lines, putting independent redistricting on “life support,” in Avella’s words. The real clash then will be between politicians straining to keep their districts intact while also acknowledging, or failing to acknowledge, a surge in the Asian population that has spurred AALDEF to propose a larger Senate district.

Creating a New District

Ultimately, whether or not the Asian population deserves more favorable district lines, their advocates’ efforts will most likely fail because the legal process will foil them, said redistricting consultant and Queens College sociology professor Dr. Andrew Beveridge.

“The law is that to have the ability legally to get a district, you need several criteria,” he said. “One is that you have to have a history of polarized voting, with non-Asian groups that frustrate the ability to form a voting bloc. You need Asians voting cohesively as a bloc. And a third thing you need to show is that there is a district where they would have a majority if you drew it.”

Beveridge explained that at least 50 percent of citizens of a voting age population are needed to form a specific voting coalition. Although the Asian population in the district created may exceed 50 percent, those who cannot vote–especially non-citizen immigrants–will lower that percentage. An “Asian influence” district could be formed, but it would be up to politicians to accommodate the expanding minority.

Beveridge said he does not think they will.

Ross Barkan for the Queens Tribune

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