Cuomo pressed to use veto threat as leverage for redistricting changes

PHOTO: Karen DeWitt, NY Public Radio

A federal court is taking over the drawing of new congressional district maps in New York, after lawmakers failed to meet their own self imposed deadline to draw new lines.  Lawmakers have already released new maps for Senate and Assembly lines and a coalition that includes  former State Attorney General Robert Abrams is urging Governor Cuomo to use a veto threat as leverage to win changes for next time.

Governor  Cuomo has called the legislative district maps designed by the Assembly and Senate “hyper-partisan”, and has said he’ll veto them if they are not amended.

Among Cuomo’s complaints are the plans for new Senate districts. Republicans, who are in charge of the chamber by a narrow margin, would pit six incumbent minority party Democrats against one another in three districts. They also want to create a new 63rd district designed to be favorable to the GOP.

A coalition of good government groups and former elected officials are urging Governor Cuomo to use his veto threat as leverage to achieve lasting reform of the process for once and for all.

Dick Dadey, with Citizen’s Union says Cuomo should negotiate for less egregiously gerrymandered lines, and try to win agreement on a constitutional amendment to enact a more independent process, beginning in the next round of redistricting in 2022.

“What we have seen in Albany over these last couple of months is a complete circus,” Dadey said. “We need to end the sideshows that are going on and bring about long term structural reform.”

Dadey says Cuomo should also press for a new state law that binds legislators to drawing non partisan lines next time, even if the constitutional amendment, which requires several steps for passage, were to eventually fail.

Dadey admits it’s not the ideal solution, and would likely be a “political settlement”, but says with time running out, it’s “the last best hope”.

Dadey was joined by a panel of academic experts on redistricting reform as well as former State Attorney General Robert Abrams. Abrams, back  in 1965 won a seat in the State Assembly as an insurgent candidate against the then- Bronx establishment. Those in power tried to redistrict him out of his seat by creating a new, presumably hostile district.

“It had a head, it had a body, it had a tail,” said Abrams, who dubbed it “Buckleysaurus”, after Charlie Buckley, the then political boss of the Bronx.

Abrams, who eventually won a new term anyway, says what’s shocking is that 45 years later, so little has changed, and “the weirdest shapes imaginable”, are still being drawn.

“It’s done for partisan political reasons,” he said.

Abrams says a veto alone or just letting the issue go through the courts isn’t good enough. He says Cuomo should “seize the moment”, and use his veto threat as leverage to achieve what he calls a “pragmatic” solution.

Sue Lerner, with the reform group Common Cause, disagrees. She urges Cuomo not to trade away his veto threat.

“We don’t see one as a bargaining chip for the other,” Lerner said.

Lerner says the governor still has a little bit of time. While a federal judge has set the congressional primaries for June 26th,  the primary election for state races remains September 11th. She says the governor still could achieve both better lines in 2012, and reform of the process for the future.