Interviews & Profiles

NYC’s former census czar on the narrow loss of a House seat

Julie Menin shared her frustrations with the state’s census efforts.

NYC’s former census czar Julie Menin.

NYC’s former census czar Julie Menin. Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

New York’s 2020 census efforts concluded with the announcement that the state would lose one congressional seat. It was a bittersweet moment because even though the state avoided losing two seats, New York also came incredibly close to holding on to all of them. If just 89 more people had been counted, and the population of all other states kept constant, New York would’ve kept all 27 of its House seats.

City & State spoke with Julie Menin, former director of NYC Census 2020 and a current City Council candidate, to reflect on New York’s slim loss and what that means about New York’s census work. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

After hearing that New York state would lose one congressional seat, but missed out on keeping it by 89 people, what was your initial reaction? Was it a victory that New York avoided the worst-case scenario of losing two seats or disappointment that we almost kept all our seats?

It was absolutely a victory in the sense that we staved off the worst result, which had been feared. Every pundit, every observer two years ago felt that New York was going to lose two congressional seats, and I think it really was a testament to the organized effort that we put in that we got to the point where we lost one. It’s never good to lose any, of course, but we lost one and we almost lost none. Since World War II, this is actually the best result on the census in terms of a loss of congressional representation, to lose just one seat. 

I will say, however, that it is beyond frustrating to know that we almost lost no seats. And certainly, if the Trump administration had not cut our work short by two weeks … in those two weeks, of course we could have counted those additional 89 people and then we would have lost no seats. So that is the first frustration. And the second one would have to be the state and Gov. (Andrew) Cuomo because, at the end of the day, the city spent two years organizing. New York City beat almost every other city across the country on the census because we had a well-organized effort. … The governor refused to allocate funding until the census was well underway, and even at that only a fraction of what was needed. … We really were in a go-it-alone approach, unfortunately, with no partnership from the state. And if you look at the numbers upstate, downstate, you can really see that.

What do you think the state should have done and can you explain what difference it would have made if those funds had been released earlier?

If you look at the state of California and what that state decided to do, in terms of allocating close to $180 million of funding. And then you look at what New York state did. They kept saying that they would allocate funding but they didn’t, and then the census was underway. If you contrast with the city of New York – I was appointed census director in January 2019. I then spent that time organizing a community grants approach. That takes time to put in place because of government, distribution and procurement rules. … But the state, on the contrary, opted not to do that, and only reluctantly, after quite a bit of badgering, ended up allocating $20 million well after the census had already begun, and then COVID hit. … And not to mention the governor had the power of the bully pulpit, with the COVID briefings. Where was he in using the power of the bully pulpit to help our state? … We asked so many times for his briefings to include messaging on the census like we did at the city.

Cuomo said the state is exploring possible legal options in response to the narrow loss. Do you think it makes sense for the state to pursue legal action in light of the apportionment news?

Absolutely. I’m glad that he’s now paying attention to this issue. … Absolutely, there needs to be a pursuit of legal action here. We simply cannot trust the Trump administration on the data.

You’ve mentioned a lot of these different issues that happened under the Trump administration that complicated the census effort. The apportionment counts are obviously being released under a different administration, but do you have lingering concerns that the data is not accurate?

A problem we have is that the whole process around the census, from the federal government side, was an intentional effort to suppress counts in communities of color and immigrant communities. That’s what the citizenship question was all about. And they also underfunded the census. So, for example, there were no walk-in centers for New Yorkers who may have questions about filling out the census or there were language barriers. Then, you overlay the fact that it is largely an online census and a third of New Yorkers lack access to broadband. So you take all of these things holistically together, plus the legal challenges (from) the Trump administration and (the) roadblocks that they kept putting in place. Absolutely, I have real concerns about the data. Yes, of course we’re in the Biden administration, but a lot of this data was tabulated and collected during the Trump administration.