Proposed district lines enrage Queens leaders
Queens Chronicle – Queens legislators and residents lambasted the state group tasked with redrawing district lines that will cement New York’s political landscape for the next decade, accusing its members of splitting apart communities and pitting democratic lawmakers each against each other.
One member of a good government organization –Bill Mahoney from the New York Public Interest Research Group – even called the proposed redistricting maps for the state Senate “clearly the most gerrymandered lines in recent New York history.”
The Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment, often referred to as LATFOR, released its maps last Thursday, which redraw lines for Assembly and state Senate districts. While the majority of legislators, and Gov. Cuomo, had pledged there would be an independent redistricting committee, no such group was formed and the process was overseen by majority leaders in each chamber.
The state Legislature must still vote to approve the maps, which a number of Queens Democrats said they plan to reject, and Cuomo, who on Friday called the maps “unacceptable,” would have to green-light the lines before they were implemented.
“It’s obvious the political parties drew these lines in what is truly a flawed process,” said state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach). “I’m intrigued about having the opportunity to represent the Rockaways, like I did in the city Council, but it goes in contrast to what I’ve been saying all along –we need to keep communities together. This splits up the Rockaways, and for me they broke up Woodhaven, Ozone Park, Richmond Hill and Ridgewood. I don’t accept my lines.”
Redistricting happens once every 10 years after the federal Census numbers are published. The idea behind it is to redraw the political coverage areas so they better represent the changing demographics as reported by the Census, though everyone from good government groups to civic leaders and legislators themselves have criticized New York’s process, saying it leads to gerrymandered maps with contorted boundary lines that divide residents of similar backgrounds or interests, to favor incumbents.
“The lines this year are definitely just as bad as they’ve always been,” Mahoney said. “This year, more than in years past, they’ve manipulated the lines in the Senate, which means New York City is horribly underrepresented and upstate has more legislators than it should. In the Assembly, the opposite is true.”
“In the Senate, they’re more concerned with protecting a few members who had been in very close districts,” Mahoney continued.
Mark Hansen, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Long Island), said lawmakers were careful to draw lines that best represented communities of interest.
“When the reapportionment task force held its public hearing in the city, it was made very clear by the Asian-American community that they wanted to see an Asian-American district,” Hansen said. “We achieved that goal and protected other communities of interest throughout the city, as well as strengthening the Hispanic districts in New York City.”
However, Asian-American groups criticized the proposed lines. The Flushing-based Asian American Community Coalition on Redistricting and Democracy, said the two proposals “present extremely mixed results for the Asian American community.”
ACCORD members said while they appreciate the presence of a majority Asian-American Senate district that reflects the tremendous growth of Asian-Americans in Queens over the past decade, they said the “contorted lines” divide Flushing.
The Senate proposal creates five open districts in the state, including an Asian district in a part of Flushing now represented by state Sens. Toby Stavisky (D-Whitestone) and Tony Avella (D-Bayside).
“A compact district in Flushing-Bayside should be drawn to keep Asian-American communities of interest together in these neighborhoods,” ACCORD said in a prepared statement.
ACCORD was happier with the Assembly’s proposal, which would create three Asian-American majority Assembly districts – two in Queens and one in Brooklyn –though members said the proposal does not unite the Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park communities.
The Manhattan-based Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund agreed with ACCORD, and Jerry Vattamala, a staff attorney for the group’s Democracy Program, said the plan for the Senate majority district creates a “boundary line that runs straight down the heart of downtown Flushing, diluting the strength of that community.”
Along with accusing Republicans of pitting Avella and Stavisky against each other, the proposal would place state Sen. Michael Gianaris’ (D-Astoria) house in northeast Astoria in state Sen. Jose Peralta’s (D-Jackson Heights) district – forming an area that Councilman Peter Vallone (D-Astoria) said looked like “a baby alien popping out of a stomach.”
The proposed lines in Astoria would force Gianaris to run in a primary against Peralta or move if he wants to remain in office.
“The proposed lines are a joke,” Gianaris said. “The Senate Republicans should be embarrassed they even suggested them. There was a complete disregard for the public will, but the effort is not over yet.”
Gianaris, as well as a number of other legislators and civic leaders, said they plan to speak out against the proposal during a public hearing on the proposed maps on Tuesday, Feb. 7 at 3 p.m. at Queens Borough Hall, located at 120-55 Queens Blvd.
Peralta too slammed LATFOR for what he called “petty, election-year politics as arrogant as it is obvious.”
“The pledges to redistricting reform by Republicans clearly are not worth the ink used to sign them,” Peralta continued. “If they have at least minimal respect for voters, Republicans will spare New Yorkers further hypocrisy and keep to themselves ridiculous claims that their bold-faced power grab was done in the name of minority enfranchisement.”
For the most part, Assembly members in Queens, all of whom are part of the majority party, were happier with the proposed lines for their districts, with the exception of Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Little Neck), who said he plans to also testify against the plan.
“My new proposed district is only 40 percent of my old district,” Weprin said. “It doesn’t keep the communities of eastern Queens together. I’m going to testify against the plan. I’m not happy with the proposed lines.”
Weprin would lose Fresh Meadows, most of Bellerose and parts of Bayside and Glen Oaks.
“In Queens they intended to create an additional Asian district, and I think the gerrymandering of my district, and others, was to create that new Asian district,” Weprin said. “It may be a noble cause, but the proposed district splits apart communities.”
Weprin would also pick up portions of Richmond Hill and Kew Gardens.
Bob Friedrich, the president of Glen Oaks Village Co-Op and a civic activist who has long advocated for a fair redistricting process, also criticized plans for District 24, which Weprin represents, as well as other Assembly districts in northeast Queens.
“LATFOR has abdicated its responsibility to serve the needs of the communitiy and instead has served the needs of its politicians,” Friedrich said. “The new legislative maps are an abomination and are gerrymandered to break up our communities that have simply asked to remain united.”
While Weprin was upset with the lines, Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows) said his office is fine with the proposal.
Lancman would lose Richmond Hill, Briarwood and the Broadway-Flushing area, while he would pick up most of Fresh Meadows and Bayside Hills. He would also acquire more of Flushing.
“The district he represents right now is tough because it comprises six community boards, six precincts, and four school districts,” said Eric Walker, a spokesman for Lancman. “The proposed district has only two school districts, three community boards and three precincts. It makes sense.”
The Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association supported the Assembly districts but panned the proposed Senate lines. All of Woodhaven remains within a single Assembly district, but is split into three Senate districts.
“LATFOR’s decision to split up a one-square-mile neighborhood among three different senators is bewildering and has no basis in the character, demographics or needs of our community,” said Alexander Blenkinsopp, the WRBA’s communications director.
Assemblymen Mike Miller (D-Woodhaven) and Phil Goldfeder (D-Ozone Park) also said they support the lines for their respective districts.
Miller would lose a portion of Glendale, but gain sections of Ozone Park and Ridgewood.
“I’m going to continue to push for an independent redistricting commission,” Goldfeder said.
By Anna Gustafson