New York’s Redistricting Chaos Is Part of Andrew Cuomo’s Legacy

The deal involved billions of taxpayer dollars; it reinforced the power of entrenched elected officials; and it was fabulously complicated and secretive, with bill language being released publicly for the first time at 3 a.m., followed by a vote shortly after sunrise. All of which made the 2012 bargain negotiated by Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders, a delicate budget deal balancing government pension savings and electoral redistricting, a classic example of Albany politics as usual. Yet this one also came with a special bonus: a 10-year slow fuse that has suddenly burned the Democratic members of New York’s congressional delegation, and may help House Democrats lose the majority in Washington.

That’s because the redistricting mess that unfolded in late May—discarding one congressional district all together, redrawing the maps to pit septuagenarian incumbent New York Democrats against one another in a naked fight for survival, and screwing over younger, more progressive electeds—has its roots in the kind of trade-off that made Cuomo, for better and worse, a brilliant horse trader. There’s nothing inherently evil or unethical about horse-trading—the government couldn’t function without it. The problem this time around is that a Democratic governor’s wheeling and dealing, in one of the country’s bluest states, has come back to bite his own party—as if Cuomo’s resignation, nine months ago amid sexual harassment allegations, wasn’t a bitter enough legacy. (Cuomo has denied all allegations of sexual harassment.) The former governor, unsurprisingly, doesn’t see it this way. “The people of the state of New York overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment creating this process,” Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi says. “If they want to blame somebody for this chaotic mess, there are plenty of mirrors in this town.”

It all goes back to some tangled ancient history: When Cuomo was running for governor in 2010, he pledged to end “hyper-partisan” redistricting. Two years later he used the census-mandated redrawing of district lines as a chit in state budget negotiations. Cuomo got a new pension tier that lowered payments for some unionized state employees; in exchange, incumbent state legislators got the ability to create districts that would favor their reelection. The drawing of new congressional districts was punted 10 years down the road and placed in the hands of an unwieldy, supposedly “independent” commission. This year, when New York Republicans stalled the commission’s work, they essentially pushed redistricting into the state’s courts.

Cuomo made strenuous efforts to steer the state down the ideological middle, which he claimed was a necessity early on—when Republicans controlled a majority of the state senate—but which also enhanced his own power. One byproduct was Cuomo’s nominating of the four relatively conservative judges, including one Republican, who in April voted to tear up the proposed congressional redistricting maps. “What Democrats did to our majority on the highest court would never happen in a Republican-controlled state,” Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney says, which is as close as he will get to blaming Cuomo. “That court made a mess of this, and it put the project in the hands of a Republican in Steuben County. And we got a crappy result.” 

Maloney says this with grudging respect for Republican partisan discipline; he’s an ambitious, moderate Democrat whose attempt to nudge the maps in Democrats’ favor ended up backfiring, and ultimately contributed to their rejection. But he also says it ruefully, because Maloney is one of the Democrats caught up in the worst of the redistricting fallout. The district he currently represents was essentially split in half. Maloney moved fast to declare he would run in a new, adjoining district where he lives—without telling that area’s current incumbent, 35-year-old first-term congressman Mondaire Jones, a Black, gay Harvard Law grad who is part of the state’s emerging generation of politicians. Jones was, and is, furious, in part because Maloney also heads the official campaign arm for House Democrats, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, whose mission is to do what’s best for Democratic candidates as a whole and to try to hang on to the party’s slim House majority. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has called on Maloney to resign from his position in the party’s leadership if he challenges a Democratic colleague, telling Politico his decision “absolutely further imperils our majority.” She isn’t alone in her outrage.

“I was extremely disappointed with his decision,” says Congressman Jamaal Bowman, who could have faced a primary against Jones, a fellow progressive, as a result of Maloney’s move, because the new maps put Jones in Bowman’s district. Instead, Jones is moving from the suburbs north of the city to run in a new district stretching from Manhattan to Brooklyn. “The Democratic Party needs to stop fighting within themselves and unify to save democracy,” Bowman says. “We don’t want to send a message to the American people that it’s every person for themselves.”

Maloney is contrite, to a point. “I would be the first to tell you I could have done it better, and I wish I had. And I should have spoken to Mondaire at the outset, and I have spoken to him since and apologized for that,” Maloney tells me. “At the end of the day, though, I’m still in a frontline district, and if I ran in a different district, it would be the same number of frontline districts in New York. And so the control-of-the-House issue doesn’t change. We need to win the same number of tough seats.”

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