Lawmakers hold first public hearing on new redistricting maps

The Legislative task force on redistricting held its first meeting since new proposed maps were released. Lawmakers heard numerous accusations that the new lines were “gerrymandered” and say the proposed maps are not set in stone.

The task force held the first of a round of several new hearings on the proposed maps. The new district lines were released last week, and immediately criticized by numerous government reform groups as partisan and blatantly gerrymandered. Governor Cuomo said the lines, as currently designed, are “unacceptable” and “full of political machinations”, and would have to be vetoed.

Assembly task force chair Jack McEneny says the maps will likely change before they are voted on around March 1st, and perhaps by then will meet the governor’s approval.

“Historically, there have always been different lines,” McEneny said. “Why would we bother having nine public hearings?”

McEneny says he and others on the task force will listen to the comments at the hearings “very carefully”, and says their suggestions “may wind up on the maps”.

And Legislators heard plenty of comments during the first day of the hearings.  The proposed new lines pit six minority party Senate Democrats against one another in three districts.  Republicans, who are the majority party in the Senate, and who drew the lines, do not pair up any GOP incumbents in any districts.

The proposed Senate maps also split several upstate counties into numerous districts, for example, Monroe County, which contains the City of Rochester, is split among four Senators, and St. Lawrence, Tompkins and Cayuga Counties are divided into three Senate districts   The League of Women Voters called the new lines an “incumbency protection plan”. The League’s Barbara Bartoletti says New Yorkers realize the process hasn’t been fair.

“Even though the public doesn’t know the ins and the outs , they know it isn’t working,” said Bartoletti.

Bill Mahoney, with the New York Public Interest Research Group did not just criticize the Senate’s lines. He says the Assembly’s lines, drawn by Majority Party Democrats, are also gerrymandered. He says while the Senate lines favor upstate and Republicans, the Assembly lines favor down state and Democrats, and he says both are too “partisan”.

“There needs to be a complete redesign of this process,” Mahoney said.

That irritated Senate task force Chair Mike Nozzolio.

“You cast a lot of aspersions,” Nozzolio said.

Senator Nozzolio says the government reform groups are ignoring the positive aspects of maps, like creating the first Asian American majority district in Queens.

The Senator,  speaking before the hearing, answered criticisms that some of the Senate districts are oddly shaped, in particular a new 63rd district carved out of part of New York’s capital region, that appears designed to favor a Republican.

“We’re not interested in shapes,” said Nozzolio “We’re interested in communities of interest.”

Sue Lerner is with Common Cause, whose organization drew model non partisan legislative maps that are markedly different than the legislature’s proposed maps. Lerner says she’s deeply disappointed with the Senate and Assembly’s product. She says she hopes the initial maps have not been drawn in a blatantly partisan manner so that Governor Cuomo and the legislature could settle on a slightly less gerrymandered version in the coming weeks, then call it reform.

“That would be a sorry state of affairs from the public’s point of view,” Lerner said.

Lerner says she continues to have faith in Governor Cuomo’s threat to veto any plan that is partisan.

PHOTO: Karen DeWitt / NY Public Radio