Districts Still Unsettled As New York Primary Nears

Mar 4, 2012
Originally published on March 9, 2012 9:51 am

By now, most states around the country have redrawn their political boundaries based on the 2010 census — and then there's New York.

For voters in the Forest Hills section of Queens, it has been rough. A year ago, they were represented by Democrat Anthony Weiner, who tweeted his way to infamy. Now, they're represented by Republican Bob Turner, who won a special election after Weiner resigned.

Right now, nobody even knows what district they're in.

New York state has been steadily losing congressional seats for 60 years. It is customary for Democratic and Republican leaders in the state to hammer out a compromise that eliminates one seat currently held by each party. But there has been no deal this year. And, as Dick Dadey of the watchdog group Citizens Union points out, the primary election is less than four months away.

"For voters not to know what congressional district they are, or even the candidates to know what districts they might run in, creates a level of political chaos that we've not seen here in New York state before," Dadey says.

Since the Legislature hasn't offered a solution, the courts are now getting involved. A federal judge in Brooklyn has called for a hearing Monday on two separate redistricting plans submitted by state lawmakers.

The most obvious point of disagreement is the Queens district where Turner won a special election last year. Democrats want to eliminate it, while Republicans don't. But there are also smaller differences that could have big consequences for races all over the state.

"At this point, I'm right on the edge of two districts, and I can go either way," says Doug Hoffman, an accountant from Lake Placid in the Adirondacks.

Hoffman ran for Congress in 2010 with Tea Party support, and almost won. Hoffman is contemplating another run this year, but he doesn't know which district he lives in.

"Until that question is answered, I can't decide what race I'm getting into," he says. "It's taking away the average person's ability to get into a campaign and raise funds."

Hoffman and other would-be challengers may finally get some answers soon. The judge hearing the redistricting case set a deadline of March 12 to release her own congressional map.

Lawmakers could still come up with a political compromise, but Susan Lerner at the nonprofit Common Cause New York thinks such a map would be carefully crafted to protect incumbents in both parties, and that Gov. Andrew Cuomo should reject it.

"If the lines are gerrymandered the way the proposals have been very gerrymandered and partisan to an extreme degree, then, yes, he should veto them," Lerner says. "That will give the courts more discretion to do a better job."

Others think the governor should use the threat of his veto as leverage to make lawmakers accept real, permanent changes.

Government watchdog groups in New York agree there should be an independent commission to redraw the state's political boundaries every 10 years. Most politicians in the state say they agree, but their actions say something else.


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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

By now, most states around the country have redrawn their political district lines based on the 2010 census - most states. Then there's New York. Lawmakers there have tried and failed to come up with a compromise that would eliminate two congressional seats. Now, a federal judge is stepping in. As NPR's Joel Rose reports, that could either resolve the chaos or add to it.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Pity the poor voters here in the Forest Hills section of Queens. A year ago, they were represented by Democrat Anthony Weiner, who tweeted his way to infamy. Now, they're represented by Republican Bob Turner, who won a special election. And next year? Right now, nobody even knows what district they're in.

JOHN BELZER: I don't think that's right for the public.

ROSE: That's Forest Hills voter John Belzer(ph). I heard similar frustrations from Barbara Silver and Robert Spinizola(ph).

BARBARA SILVER: I think that that's messed up. It's so important in the political process so that we can get our votes in clearly.

ROBERT SPINIZOLA: It's lousy. It stinks. It all stinks. But what can you do?

ROSE: New York state has been steadily losing congressional seats for 60 years. It's customary for Democratic and Republican leaders in the state to hammer out a compromise that eliminates one seat currently held by each party. But there's been no deal this year. And, as Dick Dadey of the watchdog group Citizens Union points out, the primary election is less than four months away.

DICK DADEY: For voters not to know what congressional district they are or even the candidates to know which district they might run in, creates a level of political chaos that we've not seen here in New York state before.

ROSE: Since the legislature hasn't offered a solution, the courts are getting involved. A federal judge in Brooklyn has called for a hearing today on two separate redistricting plans submitted by state lawmakers.

The most obvious point of disagreement is the Queens district where Bob Turner won a special election last year. Democrats want to eliminate it, while Republicans don't. But there are also smaller differences too. Differences that could have big consequences for races all over the state.

DOUG HOFFMAN: At this point, I'm right on the edge of two districts, and I can go either way.

ROSE: Doug Hoffman is an accountant from Lake Placid in the Adirondacks. He ran for Congress in 2010 with Tea Party support and almost won. Hoffman is contemplating another run this year, but he doesn't know which district he lives in.

HOFFMAN: So until that question is answered, I can't decide what race I'm getting into. It's taking away the average person's ability to get into a campaign and raise funds.

ROSE: Hoffman and other would-be challengers may finally get some answers soon. The judge hearing the redistricting case set a deadline of March 12th to release her own congressional map.

Lawmakers could still come up with a political compromise, but Susan Lerner at the nonprofit Common Cause New York thinks such a map would be carefully crafted to protect incumbents in both parties, and that Governor Andrew Cuomo should reject it.

SUSAN LERNER: I think if the lines are gerrymandered the way the proposals have been very, very gerrymandered and partisan to a very extreme degree, then, yes, he should veto them. And that will give the courts more discretion to do a better job.

ROSE: Others think the governor should use the threat of his veto as leverage to make lawmakers accept real, permanent reform. All government watchdog groups here agree there should be an independent commission to redraw the state's political boundaries every 10 years. Most politicians in the state say they want that, too, but their actions say something else.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.