The group of state legislators that drew the proposed district lines for the Assembly and Senate should be exiled to New Jersey after creating areas resembling Rorschach ink blots that split apart communities and dilute minority voters’ power — or, at the very least, be sent back to the drawing board — irate residents and legislators said at a hearing in Queens this week.
Hundreds of people packed a room at Queens Borough Hall on Tuesday for a hearing held by the Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment, often referred to as LATFOR.
LATFOR, made up mostly of legislators, including the majority leaders from each chamber, released its proposed district lines for the state Assembly and Senate late last month as part of the redistricting process that occurs once every 10 years after the federal Census numbers are released.
“You knew what the right thing to do was, and you still didn’t do it,” said Ali Najmi, an attorney with SEVA, a Richmond Hill-based nonprofit that works with South Asian and West Indian populations in Queens. “This task force has failed the people of New York, and you should all be exiled to New Jersey.”
More than 125 people signed up to speak during the hearing, which was chaired by state Sen. Michael Nozzolio (R-Seneca Falls) and Assemblyman John McEneny (D-Albany). Many of those who spoke lambasted the task force for its proposed lines, which, if they are to be implemented, must be passed by the state Legislature and approved by Gov. Cuomo — who has promised to veto the proposal if it comes before him as proposed.
More than 100 people also rallied against the proposed lines outside borough hall just prior to the hearing, including Leroy Gadsden, president of the Jamaica branch of the NAACP; Democratic District Leaders Costa Constantinides, of Astoria, and Martha Taylor, of Jamaica Estates; the Rev. Charles Norris, pastor of Bethesda Missionary Baptist Church in Jamaica; Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights); and Archie Spigner, a former councilman representing much of Southeast Queens.
“We say today in a loud and clear voice to our governor, ‘Just say no to the LATFOR proposal,’” Gadsden said. “As citizens of this state, we call on you to keep your word and veto LATFOR’s lines. The mere proposal of this voter disenfranchisement and dilution bill renders LATFOR without credit or merit and they should be disbanded immediately.”
Those speaking at the rally took particular issue with state Republicans for creating a 63rd Senate District, which does not currently exist, upstate, which they said is an attempt to gain a conservative, predominantly white district as opposed to creating a minority district in New York City or on Long Island.
Councilman Ruben Wills (D-Jamaica) called the plan “borderline racism.”
“When you look at southeastern Queens, the community has been spread around four Senate districts,” Wills said. “Senate District 10 was drawn from Addisleigh Park all the way to Far Rockaway. We have no idea how that could’ve been done.”
According to many residents at the forum, the proposed lines divide communities of interest and pit Democrats against Democrats, including removing state Sen. Toby Stavisky’s (D-Whitestone) home from the area she represents, the 16th Senate District, placing it in the 11th Senate District, represented by state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), meaning Stavisky would have to run against Avella if the boundaries were adopted.
“Gentlemen, I’m here to help you draw the lines,” Stavisky said at the hearing, garnering laughter and applause from the audience. “They have to be better than the lines you’ve started out with.”
“We cannot wait another 10 years for fairness and equality,” Stavisky continued.
While Republican leaders have said they changed the areas represented by Stavisky and Avella to create the first-ever Asian-American majority district in the Senate, minority groups criticized the lines.
“The current proposal, groundbreaking as it is, divides the neighborhood of Flushing,” said James Hong, of the Asian American Community Coalition on Redistricting and Democracy, a citywide organization.
Jerry Vattamala, a staff attorney at the Democracy Program for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said while his organization is pleased with a number of the proposed Asian majority Assembly districts, it is not happy with Senate District 16.
“This proposed district could be improved by eliminating the northern appendage that captures Bay Terrace,” Vattamala said. “This portion has a population of roughly 16,000 people. We recommend that an equal number of people be added from Flushing.”
Bay Terrace Community Alliance President Warren Schreiber agreed, saying his neighborhood more strongly identifies with Bayside than Flushing and should be in Senate District 11, not 16.
“To my friends in the Asian community, let’s work together,” Schreiber said. “They want to use the tactic of divide and conquer — let’s not let that happen.”
“The process of setting district lines is self-serving and entirely serves the politicians,” Schreiber continued. “We are not part of Flushing; we are part of the community of Bayside. We always have been and always will be.”
Like Stavisky, Avella took the task force to, well, task.
“The exclusion of Bay Terrace from the 11th Senatorial District, which is surrounded by the communities of Whitestone and Bayside that are in the 11th Senatorial District, demonstrates that this Republican plan is politically motivated,” Avella said. “In fact, Bay Terrace was appropriately included in the 11th Senatorial District until it was gerrymandered out of the district 20 years ago through the same type of overtly partisan redistricting process.”
Avella and Nozziolo sparred during his testimony, with the Queens politician asking Nozziolo to “pay attention” when the upstate senator began speaking with another task force member while Avella was talking.
“This attitude goes to show why we’re here —the Republicans have drawn a totally partisan plan to protect themselves,” Avella said to Nozziolo. “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
Nozziolo retaliated, saying the panel had not received Avella’s written testimony and for the Bayside legislator to tell him “specifically” with which maps he had a problem.
“You know senator, you know,” Avella said. “Senator, this is a disgrace.”
“The proposed lines more closely resemble jigsaw puzzle pieces and Rorschach ink blots, as opposed to contiguous and compact district lines drawn to protect voter rights and represent the common social and economic interests of local residents,” Avella continued.
The proposal would also place state Sen. Michael Gianaris’ (D-Astoria) house in northeast Astoria in state Sen. Jose Peralta’s (D-Jackson Heights) district.
“Today you are being called out — called out for your disgraceful manipulation of the democratic process to prevent communities throughout this state from achieving the representation their numbers warrant,” Gianaris said.
A large number of South Asian organizations said LATFOR cracked their community lines.
“You had the audacity to chop us up,” Vishnu Mahadeo, president of the Richmond Hill Economic Development Corporation, said of the Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park area, which is proposed to be divided among five Assembly districts. “You’re disenfranchising a very large community.”
State Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Little Neck) agreed with Mahadeo.
“The map would thus divide Richmond Hill, cracking the South Asian community,” said Weprin, who would lose Fresh Meadows, most of Bellerose and parts of Bayside and Glen Oaks while picking up portions of Richmond Hill and Kew Gardens. “From just looking at the map you can see the different shape. It would be long and thin and barely meets the criteria for being contiguous, as compared to my current district, which is more rectangular in shape and compact.”
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, as well as other Assembly districts in northeast Queens.
“The new legislative lines are an abomination,” Friedrich said. “You have taken the 24th Assembly District and sliced and diced communities haphazardly along a narrow corridor.”