From Assemblyman Mike Miller (D-Woodhaven) potentially losing almost all of Glendale to Woodside and East Elmhurst possibly being carved from Assemblyman Michael DenDekker’s (D-Jackson Heights) district, Queens residents could soon be looking at a dramatically different political landscape once the state Legislature wraps up a redistricting process that some residents and politicians worry will be flawed without the input of an independent group.
Redistricting — which entails a group of four legislators and two appointed non-legislators redrawing the political lines to determine which neighborhoods will fall under which Assembly, state Senate and Congressional districts — occurs once every 10 years in New York, after the federal Census numbers are published. The group tasked with redrawing the lines, called the Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment, often referred to as LATFOR, is expected to release its proposed maps sometime next week. After they are released, public hearings will be held and the Legislature will vote on the final lines — though no one seems to have any clue as to when that will happen.
While the idea behind redistricting is to redraw the political coverage areas so they better represent the changing demographics as reported by the census, 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 split apart communities that would normally be unified by, for example, ethnicity, to favor incumbents.
That is why almost every legislator running in 2010, and in the special election in 2011, signed a pledge to support an independent redistricting commission to take charge of, or at least help in, the process — which hasn’t happened.
This process, some civic and political leaders said, has led to a preliminary map from LATFOR that splits apart communities in Queens.
According to sources with knowledge of the redistricting process, the map shows that all but six blocks of Glendale would be wiped from Miller’s district and given to Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi (D-Forest Hills). Hevesi in turn would lose a chunk of Forest Hills, including much of the Bukharian Jewish community he represents —which the sources said would be split among six Assembly districts.
Miller, who lives in Glendale, would also lose the parts of Richmond Hill and Ozone Park he represents, but pick up more of Ridgewood, according to the sources.
Miller and Hevesi did not comment on the matter, though Miller said he strongly supports an independent redistricting commission.
“I think Glendale should be kept together with Woodhaven, Richmond Hill and Ozone Park,” said Albert Baldeo, a Democratic district leader and former candidate for office from Richmond Hill. “These are communities with common interests, common problems and common solutions. They shouldn’t be divided. If they are, that means their problems will not get the attention they deserve, issues like education, healthcare, social services and transportation.”
Other district proposals recently published by various organizations, including the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, aim to create more ethnically cohesive communities in the city. For example, AALDEF leaders pointed out that the Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park area, which has a large number of Indo-Caribbeans and South Asian Americans, is divided among six assembly districts.
“Given the rapid Asian American population growth over the last decade, new legislative districts must be drawn to enable our community to participate effectively in the political process,” said AALDEF Executive Director Margaret Fung.
However, DenDekker said attempts to form districts dominated by Asian-Americans would tear apart the diversity of his district, which encompasses Jackson Heights, East Elmhurst and Woodside. Under AALDEF’s proposal, DenDekker, who lives in East Elmhurst, would no longer be able to represent the 34th Assembly District but would have to run against Assemblyman Jeff Aubrey (D-Corona) for the 35th District.
“They want to create an overwhelmingly Asian seat, and they’d take East Elmhurst and Woodside to do that, but I don’t think we should segregate this community,” DenDekker said. “ … I’d like us to keep being the most diverse, harmonious district. We have Korean churches, Buddhist organizations, mosques, Jewish temples, Catholic churches —it’s amazing all these people live in harmony. We have the second largest gay community outside the Village. Why would you want to take it apart?”
Other legislators, including state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach), Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows) and Assemblyman Bill Scarborough (D-Jamaica), said they don’t expect their districts to be dramatically reshaped, though Addabbo said he has “heard my district is 12,000 residents too large.”
Districts should hold between 138,000 and 150,000 residents, according to Addabbo.
“That means that they’d have to cut in my district,” Addabbo said. “I’ve been an advocate of keeping communities together. Why should Lindenwood, for example, be out of the district?”
Addabbo, Lancman and Scarborough all said they strongly support an independent commission.
The litany of concerns residents and legislators have about the process could, some believe, be better addressed by an independent commission — which a number of people speculated there is too little time to create.
Dick Dadey, executive director of the good government group Citizens Union, said, while a “full-blown independent commission is unlikely because of the time that remains,” there’s still a chance to “overlay an impartial process to the 2012 map drawing.”
While Gov. Cuomo has said he would support an independent commission, state legislators have to also agree on the group, which many agree will never happen this time around. Democrats have accused Republicans of botching any chance for a redistricting commission, saying they have refused to agree to one because it could potentially diminish their tight lead in the Senate. Republicans have said they support the idea of an independent organization, but that establishing such a group would need a change to the state Constitution, which could not happen by this election. Addabbo argued that the state Legislature would still be able to vote on the lines drawn by the independent commission, allowing them to get around needing a change to the Constitution.
If there is no set of independent eyes looking at the lines, however, many have said they believe Cuomo will follow through on his threat to veto the new maps if he believes they have been gerrymandered. Should that happen, the decision as to what the final districts will be would go to court.
“Given the courts’ past approaches to New York State redistricting, it will defer to legislative prerogative,” Dadey said. “So the lines will be marginally fairer, but not altogether different. It’s very difficult to reform a system that protects incumbents when incumbents vote on these very lines. Self-interest drives so much of the decision-making process that they won’t let go of the pen.”
Bob Friedrich, president of the Glen Oaks Village co-op, said he and other civic leaders are working together to fight for a number of northeastern Queens communities — such as Bellerose, Queens Village, Floral Park and Glen Oaks — being placed in the same district.
“Right now we’re a single City Council district,” Friedrich said. “With state lines, we’re chopped into three Assembly districts, two state Senate districts and two Congressional districts. There’s no reason for that.”
Friedrich noted that about 20 percent of Glen Oaks is represented by Assemblyman Ed Braunstein (D-Bayside) and 80 percent by Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Little Neck).
“When I ran for office the last time, independent redistricting was a huge issue,” said Friedrich, who ran for the seat held by David Weprin. “Everybody signed onto it, and then all of a sudden all the incumbents get elected and it’s just a faded memory. Where are those who said they supported this independent committee? Why aren’t they speaking up and saying this whole process with LATFOR is not what we wanted? It’s very, very upsetting to me and the other civic associations who really thought this year would be the year we’d finally see an independent committee put in place to draw lines that make sense and in the interest of the community, not the politician.”
State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) also lambasted the current system, saying “if more people knew how bad the system was, they’d rise up and demand action.”
“The reason we don’t want politicians to do these lines is because they don’t do them for the right reasons,” Avella said. “They look at how they can change the lines to, one, get themselves elected and two, keep their party in power or increase the power of their party. That’s politician concerns, not community concerns.”