This story has been updated to reflect the Independent Districting Commission rescheduling its Sept. 2 meeting to Thursday, Sept. 9, following disruptions from the remnants of Tropical Storm Ida.
A state redistricting commission is preparing to meet next Thursday to start drafting new boundaries for Assembly, Senate and Congress. But three city senators whose districts stand to shift told THE CITY they’re not ready to accept whatever lines the panel draws.
They include Brooklyn’s Sen. Roxanne Persaud, and Sen. James Sanders Jr., who said he’d like his Queens district to remain exactly how it is and that the commission should have been reaching out to incumbents “yesterday.”
Seven other state senators did not respond to requests by THE CITY asking whether they would accept lines drawn by the Independent Redistricting Commission, which can be approved by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature — or bypassed if members choose.
All of them have districts whose population is now well above the average for Senate districts statewide, meaning they’ll have to be whittled down.
The district boundaries must change partly because of population growth in the city and shrinkage upstate, but also because in a partisan redistricting process a decade ago, Senate Republicans crammed the city with fewer, fatter districts in order to squeeze in a GOP seat upstate and maintain control, say analysts.
Meanwhile, since New York’s census count fell short of just 89 people, the state will lose one seat in Congress, likely somewhere upstate.
The 10-person Independent Redistricting Commission is part of a new process approved by voters statewide in 2014 for the once-a-decade reapportionment. It’s supposed to work apart from elected officials, using the 2020 U.S. Census’ population count to apportion New Yorkers for fair and equal representation by lawmakers.
The public meeting on Sept. 9, starting at 4 p.m., will be the commission’s first since a series of virtual hearings seeking input from regions around the state, including two for New York City. And it will be the last before the commission releases its draft lines, which must happen around Sept. 15, according to the law.
Lawmakers are permitted to testify to the commission like anyone else but have no role in drawing the lines that decide which voters get assigned to them.
‘Keep the District as It Is’
Sanders told THE CITY that he just wants to provide insight on the process.
“I want to see if there’s any way we can keep the district as it is. We’ve kind of grown used to one another and we’d like to keep it the way it is,” said Sanders. “If they can’t, I want to see what their proposals are. It’s hard to make a judgment when I haven’t seen what they’re suggesting.”
The 2014 state constitutional amendment approved by voters to create the new independent commission says that the district lines can’t be drawn to favor incumbents or political parties. The districts must also be relatively equal in population, not break up racial groups to limit their participation, and be compact and continuous.
The ground rules leave open the possibility that some lawmakers will have their residences drawn into a neighboring district, severing them from their main base of support or transforming the demographics of their district.
In the GOP-controlled 2002 Senate redistricting, that happened to then Sen. Eric Schneiderman, who headed the Democrats’ fundraising to win more seats. The new lines included Washington Heights, a largely Dominican community, and severed Schneiderman from much of his largely white Upper West Side constituency.
Fear of similar fates has Democratic lawmakers on high alert.
“No, the lines drawn by the commission must be reviewed and discussed to ensure favorable outcomes with input from stakeholders,” said Persaud. Her southeast Brooklyn district, like Sanders’ in Queens, has 8% more population than the state average — meaning they will have to shrink as the lines shift.
Among New York City’s 26 State Senate districts, all but one exceed the average population among districts statewide, according to THE CITY’s analysis, every single upstate district has a smaller population than average.
Redistricting experts told THE CITY that the five boroughs could gain at least one more Senate seat, depending on how the lines get redrawn.
“New York City would be in line for an additional Senate district, but it remains to be seen,” said Steven Romalewski, director of the mapping service at the Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center.
Under past practices, any one state legislative district can have a population as much as 5% above or 5% below the average district’s population, Romalewski noted, giving map makers “a lot of leeway” in how districts are drawn. But that could change under the new rules.
The commission’s co-executive director, Karen Blatt, said in an email to THE CITY that just how much wiggle room to allow is one of the items up for discussion by the panel in the next two weeks.
“The commissioners have not yet decided on the appropriate deviations of districts,” she wrote.
Power to Reject
But there’s a chance the redistricting commission won’t have the final word on where lines are drawn.
That’s because the new process gives state lawmakers the power to reject the commission’s lines and ask for a redo. If the commission’s revised proposals for Assembly, Senate and U.S. House districts get rejected by the legislature a second time, members take over the map making themselves in a process where the majority party controls the outcome.
THE CITY attempted to contact seven local state senators besides Persaud and Sanders whose district populations are now at least 7% larger than the state average, all of them Democrats: Jabari Brisport of Brooklyn, Brian Kavanagh and Brad Hoylman of Manhattan, Michael Gianaris, Leroy Comrie and Joseph Addabbo Jr. of Queens, and Luis R. Sepulveda of The Bronx.
None responded to the same question Sanders and Persaud said “no” to: Do they intend to vote in favor of the Independent Redistricting Commission’s new district lines?
Gianaris, the Senate’s deputy majority leader, also serves as a leader of the New York State Legislative Task Force on Reapportionment and Redistricting (LATFOR) — the body in line to draw its own maps if the legislature rejects the commission’s lines.
Representing a western Queens district now 10% over the Senate’s average size, Gianaris was a vocal critic of the process that drew the current maps finalized in 2012. He called himself “the legislature’s leading advocate of redistricting reform” when cheering former Gov. Andrew Cuomo for introducing the bill leading to the constitutional changes, and gave a thumbs down to the amendment that ultimately allows the legislature to ignore the new commission’s work.
“The entire benefit of a constitutional amendment would be to take this process out of the hands of the Legislature,” Gianaris told the Times Union in 2012. “That is the reform we’ve all been fighting for for years and years. If the final product still leaves the Legislature with the final say, we’ve achieved nothing.”
‘As Long as It’s Not My Block’
Today the Democrats, who have a supermajority in both houses, are motivated to reverse what Republicans did to Senate districts last time around. (The Democratic-held Assembly controlled its own 2012 redistricting, but unlike the GOP in the Senate already had a comfortable majority of seats.)
New York is one of the few states where Democrats have the power to craft favorable partisan lines on the federal level ahead of midterm elections, only increasing their temptation in Albany to reject the commission’s proposals and craft districts themselves.
“Most of them, virtually all of them, will have to be cut,” said John McEneny, a former Democratic Assembly member who co-chaired the 2011-’12 LATFOR, said of the city’s Senate districts. “So they’ll all be made smaller and the extra numbers will then be applied to other districts, which will be fattened.”
New York City has one exception — Schneiderman’s former district, now held by Robert Jackson, snaking through the west side of Manhattan for miles from West 26th Street in Chelsea to West 218th Street in Inwood. It has a population slightly below the state average.
Jackson said the Independent Redistricting Commission has a unique opportunity to consolidate his district into a less sprawling shape. Still, he too wants to have his say in how the district will look.
“I cannot say I will accept that, I’ll have to see,” said Jackson, when asked about whether he will vote for the independent commission’s proposed lines. “Will I accept what they recommend? Depends on what they recommend.”
Sanders said that he could foresee a very narrow scenario where he might vote for the proposed lines.
“Suppose they only need to take away one or two blocks? Well, as long as it’s not my block — maybe.”