Queens residents came out in droves to question, criticize and dispense advice about the proposed redistricting of the 13th and 16th State Senate Districts at a legislative task force hearing on Wednesday.
Most of the speakers charged the state with silencing the minority voice, and demanded fair representation of their region with a redistricting plan that allows them to elect someone from their community into a political leadership role.
The meeting was held at Queens Borough Hall in Kew Gardens, and is one of seven statewide hearings planned by the New York State Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment.
The task force is led by Senator Dean Skelos and Assemblyman William Parment. Also on the panel are Senator Richard Dollinger, Assemblyman Chris Ortloff, attorney Mark Bonilla, Roman B. Hedges and Co-Executive Directors Debra Levine and Lewis Hoppe. None of the members on the task force serve Queens.
The strongest representation came from the South Asian community which had a large contingent of community leaders on hand to give testimony about how the proposed redistricting plan would affect their vote in the political process.
“The government in the city of New York should reflect the people who live in this city and this state,” said South Asian Community Council representative Inderjit Singh. “The political leaders should represent the people who live in their district. Unfortunately some of the proposed districts do not do that.”
Democratic senate leaders have threatened legal action over the proposed redistricting, which is mandated by federal and state law every 10 years, and done using census numbers. The redistricting, Demo-crats claim, is designed to increase Republican power and dilute the minority vote.
The proposed redistricting would all but eliminate the current makeup of the 13th Senate District, which is occupied by Democrat Dan Hevesi. Hevesi’s new district lines would move into the western Queens areas of Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Corona.
Hevesi’s central Queens region, which includes Forest Hills, Kew Gardens and Rego Park, would now be a part of fellow Democrat Toby Stavisky’s 16th District.
Legislative districts in western Queens, represented by Stavisky and Democrat George Onorato would also see changes in the plan.
“By dividing the communities, you are effectively disenfranchising the people,” Singh told the task force. “I think it’s unfair, I think it’s wrong and I want to appeal to your conscience.”
Other speakers at the hearing said the redistricting overpopulates the voting districts, therefore diluting the minority vote. “We don’t want you to rip our communities apart. We don’t want gerrymandering at its worst. We believe the vote will be done by the ballot and not by gerrymandering and not by manipulating the districts,” said Kay Roberts Dunham, a Queens resident.
Jackson Heights and Corona were seen by many as being two of the most critical areas affected by the proposed redistricting. Members of the Asian and Hispanic communities spoke of their unification for the common purpose of protecting the minority vote.
Genaro Herrera, a member of La Gran Alianza and a community advocate in Jackson Heights and Corona for the last 30 years, criticized the proposed districts for giving the white population a bigger vote in Jackson Heights when he said the white population has decreased in the neighborhood in the last 10 years.
“All elected officials have grossly neglected Corona. We are united because we share the same schools, the same churches and the same stores. But we are most united in the feeling of abandonment that we have been subjected to,” Herrera said.
Sungkyu Yun, a representative of the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium, credited the plan for keeping the Asian community in Flushing intact. However, he was critical of the proposal for dividing the communities in Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Woodside.
“It is critically important to have political representation that reflects the community. We urge the board to create fairness by uniting the Asian-American districts,” Yun said.
Gary White, from the Junior Chamber of Commerce in Richmond Hill, urged the task force to keep the South Asian community together in Richmond Hill and Ozone Park. He noted that the Indian population has never elected a member to office in New York State.
This sentiment was supported by Leyland Roopnaraine, a real estate broker from Richmond Hill. He pointed out that 60,000 Guyanese residents live in Richmond Hill, but have never had an elected official to represent them because the community is split into two Assembly Districts, the 31st and 32nd.
Roopnaraine said the 14th Amendment guarantees equal protection and opportunity, but quoted George Orwell’s line that “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
“The history of the world is essentially the history of the drawing of boundary lines,” he said. “When such lines are drawn without the favor and consent of the people they encompass, progress and development shifts into low gears as the communities involved become discontented, resulting in a withdrawing of skills and capital.”
Some of the testimony at the hearing came from speakers who were upset with the process. Whether it was a lack of information being dispensed or just poor planning, the task force was criticized for not making the process accessible to enough people.
Lucia Gomez, civic participation program coordinator for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, accused the task force of closing its doors and excluding a significant portion of the population that wanted to participate in the process.
One of her main gripes with the task force was that the public has not been informed of its decisions in a timely manner, and when they finally are informed it is in a way that they cannot understand.
“Your legal jargon and interpretation might suffice for your colleagues, but the residents of New York City who live, work and pay taxes demand an answer to why they have one less voice in the State Senate,” she said.
Gomez also chastised the panel for holding the hearing in the middle of the day, which limits the participation of working-class people. Furthermore, she said many voters did not have the software, data and tools needed to understand the drawing of the maps available on the computer.
Bayside resident James Sanders felt the meeting was dominated by lobby groups, and that the general public did not even know about the meeting.
“The Asian-American community came out to plead their case, which I admire, but it just seems that this meeting was dominated by these special-interest groups and I just wish a larger segment of Queens could have been represented.”