New York State

Dueling redistricting maps and a crisis at Rikers

Rounding up the week’s political news.

Protesters at New York City Hall demanding the closing of Rikers Island.

Protesters at New York City Hall demanding the closing of Rikers Island. Ryan Rahman/Shutterstock

Gov. Kathy Hochul seems to be off to a pretty good start to her time as governor, if poll numbers are to be believed. She 42% of New York voters view her favorability, while only 17% view her unfavorability. Of course, that leaves a large portion with no opinion yet, but better to start with a clean slate and woo the electorate than come in hated. Plus, the people think Hochul will be more collaborative than her predecessor, so it seems her messaging is working. She’s almost having as good a time as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, but it’s hard to beat crushing dirt bikes on the clock. Keep reading for the rest of this week’s news.

Redistricting draft maps released

The state Independent Redistricting Commission released long-awaited drafts after delays with census data – two sets a piece for Congress, the state Senate and the Assembly. The bipartisan panel tasked with decreasing the role of politics and gerrymandering presented one set of maps supported by Democrats and another supported by Republicans. The two sets of draft plans laid out very different visions for the state, with Republican commissioners even asserting that the Democrats’ version was illegal and unconstitutional, a charge the Democrats denied. GOP members of the commission also said their left-leaning counterparts refused to compromise before releasing the plans, while Democrats said that allowing the public to see both would be more transparent. Either way, the inability to agree and the tense public meeting to release the maps seem to be early indications that attempts to reach bipartisan agreements on redistricting might fall flat.

Some vax mandates paused

Some workers facing vaccine mandates to keep their jobs got some relief from judges, who issued temporary restraining orders for the enforcement of two separate mandates. At the state level, a federal judge in Utica blocked the implementation of the mandate for health care workers, which explicitly did not include any exemptions, notably for religious purposes. In New York City, a state Supreme Court judge put a halt to a requirement for all city Department of Education employees to get the shot, which similarly did not include exemptions. Both rulings are preliminary, and both state and city officials are confident that the vaccine mandates will ultimately stay in place.

Back to class in NYC

For the first time in over a year, public school students returned to the classroom with no remote option as the new school year began, an anomaly among large urban districts in the country, many of which have not returned to full-time in person yet. The decision against any choice for remote learning was protested by some parents who remained cautious about sending their kids back to school with the delta variant spreading and students under 12 ineligible for the vaccine. Attendance on the first day was a little lower than it has been in the past, a likely indicator of lingering hesitancy, but not drastically so. The day also had technical glitches as parents and teachers attempted to fill out required health screenings that crashed the DOE website.

Officials decry Rikers conditions

Over a dozen lawmakers and candidates at the city and state level toured the problem-plagued Rikers Island jail complex and emerged with harsh words about the conditions there. Two lawmakers said they witnessed a man attempt to kill himself. Ten people incarcerated there have died this year. The jail complex has been in crisis for some time, with a federal monitor overseeing its operations in the wake of violence, but a shortage of correctional officers as many don’t show up to work has made the situation even worse. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled the Emergency Rikers Relief Plan after the tour, which he was not a part of, to address overcrowding and staff shortages, but also punted the issue to the state and the courts to do more. A key tenet included using police officers to help relieve overworked corrections officers.

Less is More signed into law

As the situation at Rikers Island continues to deteriorate, Hochul heeded the call of lawmakers and others to sign the Less is More Act, which will reform the parole system so that fewer people return to jail for technical parole violations. Many people who populate Rikers and other jails are in for parole violations, so the law is expected to decrease the number of people reincarcerated for technical issues. The law won’t go into effect until next year, so Hochul also announced that she would direct the Board of Parole to release nearly 200 people immediately who would be eligible for release under Less is More.