The debate over drawing new district lines for New York politicians is ignoring an important law—the law of unintended consequences.
It has received little attention as reformers like Ed Koch and Sean Coffey rail against partisan gerrymandering, while LATFOR chairs Assemblyman John McEneny and Sen. Michael Nozzolio make their case for legislative prerogative. But history shows past reapportionments have always generated unintended consequences, as crafty line drawers end up outsmarting themselves.
When Senate Republicans worried about growing Democratic voter registrations in Onondaga County in 1982, they fortified Sen. Tarky Lombardi with solid Republican bastions from the county’s suburbs.
That reduced the registration advantage in Republican Sen. Martin Auer’s adjoining district, but the party didn’t worry, figuring the rural area would sustain him. Two years later, though, Democrat Nancy Larraine Hoffman defeated Auer by outworking him in the hinterlands and taking advantage of a gender gap in what remained in Onondaga.
Just a fluke? Consider the late Bronx Republican Sen. Guy Velella, who fortifi ed his district in 2002 with the Republican town of Eastchester from his fellow Republican Sen. Nick Spano’s district. It was a decision that miscalculated the tremendous minority-voter growth in Yonkers, the heart of Spano’s district.
Spano won reelection by fewer than 20 votes in 2004 against Democrat Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who beat him in a rematch two years later.
Ironically, after Velella pleaded guilty in a corruption case, Democrat Jeff Klein won the seat comfortably in a 2005 three way special election when Republican and Conservative candidates split their Westchester and Bronx bases. So one stab at partisan gerrymandering cost two Republican seats.
The lesson is that good candidates can overcome bad gerrymandering— and that lines have to stay relevant for a full decade. If partisan gerrymandering doesn’t account for demographic changes, it’s ripe for mid-decade surprises.
So what surprises might be lurking in the lines the Senate and Assembly majorities have drawn for themselves, as well as the congressional lines put forward by Magistrate Roanne Mann?
For Senate Republicans, the key is not what they added but what they didn’t add. They created a 63rd seat upstate to protect their majority, but missed an opportunity to create a Long Island district tailored for an ethnic or racial minority. Doing so might have craftily confounded their reform critics, while protecting Republican incumbents.
How? The aggregate minority population on Long Island rose to 31 percent in the 2010 Census. By 2020 40 percent of the population—and one-quarter of its vote—will likely be minority.
Furthermore, by 2020 at least two Long Island Senate districts will probably have minority registration bases at or above a 30 percent share, two more at or above 20 percent, and several more popping up to double digits.
These are the very thresholds that in recent years led to the election of Democratic senators Klein, Stewart-Cousins, Neil Breslin, Joseph Addabbo, Tony Avella, and Brian Foley in 2008, before he lost to Lee Zeldin in 2010.
The Republicans feel so secure on Long Island that they are willing to gamble. They may win their bet.
But what happens if Republican senators on Long Island face Democratic candidates with strong attachments to their districts’ white Catholic majorities, in a high-turnout year for minority voters, while the gender gap cuts the Democrats’ way? Will there be no such elections over the next decade?
The potential surprise in Mann’s proposal for the Brooklyn seat currently held by Congressman Ed Towns is even bigger: City Councilman Charles Barron transforms from a gadfly into a serious contender.
The magistrate’s original lines left out Hasidic Jews allied with Towns, as well as the Brownstone Belt voters who admire his leading challenger, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries. They added a smattering of Russian immigrants who are traditionally low-turnout primary voters. The magistrate’s revised lines restored almost all of Jeffries’ current Assembly district, but leave Towns no better off.
The result: Barron could be elected to Congress.
Unintended consequences are not inherently good or bad. We don’t know what the final lines will look like. But if past is prologue, the surprises from reapportionment will unfurl as the decade unfolds.
Bruce Gyory is a political consultant at Corning Place Communications in Albany, and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.
Tags: Andrea Stewart-Cousins, brian-foley, Bronx, brooklyn, Brownstone Belt, Bruce Gyory, Catholic, Charles Barron, democrats, Eastchester, Ed Koch, Ed Towns, gerrymandering, Guy Velella, Hakeem Jeffries, Hasids, Jeff Klein, Jews, John McEneny, Joseph Addabbo, LATFOR, Lee Zeldin, Long Island, Martin Auer, Michael Nozzolio, minorities, Nancy Larraine Hoffman, Neil Breslin, Nick Spano, Onondaga, reapportionment, redistricting, Republicans, Roanne Mann, sean-coffey, Senate, Tarky Lombardi, Tony Avella, westchester
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