August 22, 2011

Mike Lane testifies on redistricting

Long-time readers of this site know that one of my least favorite features of New York State is the New York State Legislature, which all too frequently runs for the benefit of New York State legislators. One of the foundations of that has been the tradition of gerrymandering, in which the Assembly majority draws district lines for the Assembly, while the Senate majority draws lines for the Senate. Unsurprisingly, we end up with legislative lines badly tilted toward the parties that drew them.

Way back in 2007, while redistricting was mostly theoretical, Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton hosted a forum on the issue, and I posted a transcript.

County Legislator Michael Lane was the voice of sanity back then, and I'm delighted to see that he's continued to press the issue as LATFOR - the joint legislative committee managing the deals, I mean districting - is holding hearings. In his closing, he even used the accurate word that legislators least like to hear: corrupt.

I would conclude by saying that the current process is undemocratic. Let's do it the right way. If this Task Force, or the Legislature as a whole, recommends districts in the old corrupt fashion, then I hope the Governor will keep his word and veto them. It would not be pretty and court actions might have to come into play. Whatever occurs, it is definitely time that self-serving partisan gerrymandering come to an end. Make it happen.

I've posted his whole statement, which includes notes on Tompkins County's own redistricting as well as the way the county is treated for congressional and state legislative redistricting.

Michael E. Lane
Tompkins County Legislator
District 14, Dryden
320 North Tioga Street
Ithaca, New York 14850
(607) 274-5434
Chair, Government Operations Committee

Testimony to:

New York State Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment
Binghamton, New York
August 17, 2011

Members of the Task Force.

Thank you for holding a hearing on this important topic here in the Southern Tier, and for affording me the opportunity to comment on your important task.

By way of background, I am Michael Lane, a resident of the Village and Town of Dryden in Tompkins County. I formerly served in Village government. I was Mayor of the Village Dryden for ten years, and am now in my fourteenth year of service as a Tompkins County Legislator. I currently chair the County's Government Operations Committee. In 2001, I chaired its Redistricting Committee after the 2000 Census.

Like Congress and the New York State Legislature, most counties must be redistricted as well. For the redistricting process after the 2010 Census, the Tompkins County Legislature has made a thoughtful and considered decision to establish a local independent redistricting commission to redraw districts to equalize populations. By a bipartisan and nearly unanimous vote, a resolution was adopted by which a nine-member commission was established. No elected or appointed officials, and no officers of any political parties or committees were eligible for appointment. The commission was directed not to take into consideration the residences of any incumbents, and to try to establish districts that respect municipal boundaries and communities of interest. There are copies of the resolution and memorandum establishing the Redistricting Commission annexed to my written testimony.

I believe that Tompkins may be the only New York county that has established an independent redistricting commission. We did it for two reasons: The first was to provide fair divisions to make sure everyone's voice is equally heard. And the second, as emphasized by many County Legislators at the time of its adoption, was to send a message to the New York State Legislature, that an independent process can be constructed for redistricting, and to do so is the right thing to do. Even though we are a junior partner, we chose to set an example.

It matters to our democracy how we redraw all of our representative districts, whether at the congressional, state or county level. The process should not be about the personal power of incumbents, or loading the dice for one party or the other. It should be about establishing fair play.

You all know the abuses. For a frank assessment, I commend to you the book of former New York State Senator Seymour Lachman, entitled Three Men in a Room (The New Press, New York, N.Y., 2006). Mr. Lachman, a Democrat, describes State Senate gerrymandering after the 2000 Census and in particular an incident in which the Republican Majority Leader promised him a safely constructed district, if only he would change parties or do what the Majority Leader told him (P. 38). A copy of that excerpt from the book is attached to my written testimony.

Tompkins County has been the recipient of substantial gerrymandering abuse. Take a look at the map. The County is shared by two Congressmen. Before 2000, it was in only one district, but now it is divided in two. Most of the county, including where I live, is a part of District 24, represented by Richard Hanna. But, a narrow wedge consisting of the Towns of Danby and Ithaca, and the City of Ithaca, pierces from the south and attaches to District 22, represented by Maurice Hinchey. That gerrymandering was done for just one reason-- to keep the City and Town of Ithaca attached to the 22nd District for Congressman Hinchey, because it had given him the margin of victory in at least one election. The rest of the towns in Tompkins County found themselves connected to a district extending east to Utica and Rome, and then well into the north country, areas with which there is almost no community of interest. Because the county boundaries were not respected and the Ithaca population center was stripped away, those towns have very little influence in District 24.

The gerrymandering of Tompkins County for the New York State Senatorial Districts is even more offensive. Tompkins County is nearly unique in upstate. It is the Home of Cornell University and Ithaca College. It has a majority Democratic registration and often votes that way. It ought to be a part of a single district, but has been split into three parts to dilute it voting power. The west part of the county, including the City of Ithaca, is attached to the 53rd District represented by Thomas O'Mara, which is a heavily Republican district. The eastern part of Tompkins County is attached to District 51, represented by James Seward. And then there is the lone Town of Lansing that is chopped off and annexed to District 54, represented by Michael Nozzolio.

Senator Seward's district is a remarkable feat of gerrymandering. As you may have heard, the irregular shape of that district looks like the outline of Abraham Lincoln riding a vacuum cleaner. So much for regular, compact districts. To reach to the west and eventually to Cortland and Tompkins Counties, a row of towns is connected, that are obviously there only to minimally comply with the legal requirement that the district be contiguous.

This dysfunctional system of gerrymandering is fueled by the domination of incumbent state legislators. New legislators appear rarely except when there are vacancies caused by death or retirement. Many incumbents are followed by hand picked replacements. Two of Tompkins County's legislators got their jobs after having been employees on the staff of retiring popular legislators, who, of course, endorsed them.

There are many reforms that are needed to correct the deficiencies in the New York State Legislature, but none is more fundamental than to correct the process of how Senate, Assembly, and Congressional districts are drawn . Since the 1970's, and even more so since the redistricting that took place after the 1980 federal census, there has evolved a fundamental "deal" in the New York. It goes like this: the Legislature must re-district every ten years and the governor must approve the plan. Three counties in New York City have to meet federal muster for representation of minorities under the Federal Voting Rights Act. The Senate is controlled by the Republicans and the Assembly by the Democrats. The Republicans draw district lines to favor their incumbents and to keep voting control of the Senate, and the Democrats do the same with Assembly Districts to keep control there. The Congressional districts, because both houses must agree, are slightly fairer but their irregular shapes make campaigning in them very difficult for challengers. It's called "gerrymandering" and it is done as a science, complete with the latest computer technology.

I support Governor Cuomo's call for an independent, non-partisan, redistricting commission. It's time to act. The details need to be agreed to--and I am not minimizing the difficulty of that discussion. There is time to do this if the Legislature wants it. The process needs to start now. I would like to see all New York State legislators pledge to support this as most of them have pledged in the past. It's the right thing to do for the people.

I would conclude by saying that the current process is undemocratic. Let's do it the right way. If this Task Force, or the Legislature as a whole, recommends districts in the old corrupt fashion, then I hope the Governor will keep his word and veto them. It would not be pretty and court actions might have to come into play. Whatever occurs, it is definitely time that self-serving partisan gerrymandering come to an end. Make it happen.

Thank you.

(In the video of the hearings, he's in the Binghamton Hearing, August 17th, 2011, starting around 25:30.)

Posted by simon at August 22, 2011 5:09 PM in
Note on photos