Press-Republican

March 31, 2014

US House seats made more competitive in New York

GEORGE M. WALSH
Associated Press

ALBANY — The last round of congressional redistricting in New York began with promises of reform, a nonpartisan process that would finally end years of gerrymandering widely mocked for creating outlandish districts to protect incumbents.

It ended after a year of political bickering, failure to enact changes and Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats finally unable to agree on congressional maps to account for the loss of two seats.

That failure to come to agreement sent the process to a federal court, where a magistrate took just two weeks to oversee the drawing of new maps greeted by good government groups as models of how districts should be created: compact, contiguous, competitive and representative of their populations.

In the election, the congressional delegation in the heavily Democratic state — reduced from 29 to 27 seats by low population growth — was virtually unchanged by the 2012 election. Democrats took two seats from Republicans, and Republicans took away one. That left 21 Democrats and six Republicans representing the state, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1.

Nationally, Republicans built an advantage when they drew new boundaries for House districts in key states after the 2010 Census. Geography and gerrymandering helped them hold onto a 33-seat majority in the House despite widespread GOP losses in the 2012 election.

In New York, courts had been involved in the three previous rounds of redistricting, but only in limited ways to consider challenges to district lines drawn by lawmakers.

Many districts given tortured shapes to capture incumbent-friendly voters survived, including the famous so-called fishhook district that ran in a long line from the Adirondacks along the eastern border all the way to the mid-Hudson Valley and wrapping around the Democrat-leaning Albany area into the northern Catskills. The district had been in Republican hands since early last century before now-Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand defeated the incumbent in 2006.

Dick Dadey, executive director of the good-government group Citizens Union, said the Legislature's failure to agree on district lines changed everything in 2012.

"They couldn't get a law with these new lines to the governor," Dadey said. That gave a group of voters the opportunity to go to federal court and for the court to remake the maps statewide.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said the next key was giving the court rational alternatives that could stand up to objections from lawmakers.

"It's because Common Cause and the civil rights groups had strong maps," she said. "There were valid, objective maps the court could use."

In the end, the Legislature chose not to challenge the court-drawn districts.

Lerner said the result was more competition. The election included the defeats of three first-term incumbents: Democrat Kathy Hochul in western New York and Republicans Nan Hayworth in the Hudson Valley and Ann Marie Buerkle in central New York.

It also saw the first Asian-American elected to Congress from New York, Queens Democrat Grace Meng.

The previous drawing of lines to dilute the power of minority groups was an issue addressed in the 2012 process, Lerner said. That included Meng's predominantly Chinese neighborhood.

"Certainly it gave her a better opportunity," Lerner said, stopping short of fully attributing Meng's victory to the new district lines.