ALBANY (TNS) — Before New York voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2014 that reformed the state’s redistricting process, critics warned of problems that could emerge when the once-a-decade political line-drawing process began under the new rules.
One concern was gridlock. Another was that the new, 10-person commission charged with redrawing state legislative and congressional district lines would lack independence from politicians.
After an initial round of the new redistricting commission’s meetings — held as Zoom conferences in recent weeks — there are indications those fears will be realized.
At a meeting last week, the 10 commissioners were so convinced there would be a 5-5 partisan deadlock on the appointment of a chair to run the body, they didn’t even attempt to hold a vote. And on Thursday, the 10 commissioners held a contentious, nearly hour-long debate, then deadlocked as expected in a 5-5 vote on the chair appointment.
”We are wasting time here,” said Commissioner Elaine Frazier, an Assembly Democratic appointee. “We have a tremendous amount of work to do.”
Next year, the commissioners face a much more daunting task: Striking cross-party deals to draw fairer lines for legislative districts, which for decades have been drawn by majority Democrats in the Assembly and majority Republicans in the state Senate. The new commission was touted as a way to take those powers out of the direct control of politicians, and give minority political parties in the chambers an equal voice. The lines are redrawn every 10 years to reflect population shifts from federal census data.
On the new 10-person commission, four of the commissioners were appointed by state legislative Democratic leaders and four by Republicans.
In 2012, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the new redistricting commission would give voice to “citizens who are not major party members.” That’s because under the constitutional amendment that Cuomo backed, the final two members were to be picked by the eight partisan picks to the commission and, by law, were not allowed to be either enrolled as either Democrats or Republicans.
But in practice so far, those two commission members are being treated as assured votes for one side or the other.
Republican appointee Jack Martins, a former state senator, said no one should be “naive” about the partisan nature of appointments to the commission.
”There are five votes on either side,” Martins said at Thursday’s meeting.
Critics of the “independent redistricting commission” have long warned that its name was a misnomer. In 2014, before the statewide referendum on creating the commission went on the November ballot, government reform groups including the New York Public Interest Research Group and Common Cause put out a policy paper opposing the plan.
Among other critiques, they warned that the two commissioners, picked by the eight partisan picks, might well be “closely allied third party members” to Democrats or Republicans.
Indeed, one of the two appointees, Brooklyn attorney Ross Brady, is a member of the state Conservative Party’s executive committee, treasurer of the Brooklyn Conservative Party, and was a Conservative candidate for Congress in 2014, records show.
The Conservative Party is closely allied with the Republican Party, routinely cross-endorsing GOP candidates. And at Thursday’s meeting, in the debate over whom should serve as chair, Brady said he supported commissioner Keith Wofford, a Republican attorney, who is the choice of the GOP-registered picks on the panel.
The 10th commissioner, Ivelisse Cuevas-Molina, on paper has less clear partisan leanings. She told the Times Union via email that she is not a member of any political party. At Thursday’s meeting, Cuevas-Molina stated that she was the “only nonpartisan member of the commission.”
She then proceeded to throw her support to the Democrats’ choice to lead the commission, commissioner David Imamura, and made an unusual argument in his favor. She said Imamura should be appointed under the logic that Democrats control both houses of the State Legislature, and that Joe Biden won the popular vote for president in New York.
”Democratic principles of representation call us to represent the people of New York state,” she said.
The 2014 constitutional amendment, however, was explicitly intended to give equal redistricting representation to minority parties in the state legislative chambers.
Cuevas-Molina is an assistant professor of political science at Fordham University, researching issues such as voter turnout and Latino and protest politics. In 2009, she worked for Brian Moran’s campaign for the Democratic nomination for Virginia governor.
At Thursday’s meeting, Republicans argued for a compromise on the commission chair debate: The creation of bylaws giving equal powers to a “vice-chair.” Under this plan, a member of one major party would serve as chair, a member of the other major party as vice-chair.
Republicans say this is necessary because under the 2014 amendment, the chair has the significant powers to convene meetings and set agendas. This power needs to be balanced out among the two parties, they say.
But Democrats refused to accept the arrangement, leading to the stalemate.
If a Democratic commissioner alone controls the agenda and meeting schedule, the GOP fears, Democrats might use their powers to delay, moot the commission, and hand power back to draw district lines back to the Democratic majorities in the Legislature. Wofford alleged that certain parties don’t want the commission to “properly and effectively complete its work.”
Senate Republicans unapologetically drew their own district lines during decades in the majority, but Senate Democrats will finally hold their own during the 2021-2022 process. Now Senate Republicans are seeking fairness in the line-drawing through the new commission, but fear Democrats will undercut the process in the hope it will devolve to the Legislature to craft the final map.
Senate Democrats already have a November 2021 constitutional statewide referendum in the works that would alter the 2014 amendment, and remove elements Senate Republicans put into the 2014 amendment that Democrats see as unfair advantages.