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New York's redistricting commission ends in disagreement

The New York Capitol Building in Albany
Hans Pennink
The New York Capitol Building in Albany

A commission designed to independently draw new statewide congressional and legislative districts based on the 2020 census data succumbed to politics Monday when members divided along party lines and presented two opposing plans to the state Legislature.

After months of public meetings and over two dozen hearings, the commission ended in acrimony, finger-pointing and recriminations. Commissioner Ross Brady, an attorney from New York City, expressed his disappointment that the commission could not agree on one plan, with Democrats and Republicans each presenting their own versions.

“We should have finished this together. This is an abject failure,” Brady said.

The commission was created through a constitutional amendment approved by New York’s voters in 2014. Its aim was to put an end to the state’s notorious past practices of political gerrymandering.

But the new rules allow both majority and minority party legislative leaders to pick an equal number of appointees, and the commission ended up with equally numbered Democratic and Republican factions. Each blamed the other for the inability to agree.

Commission Vice Chair Jack Martins, a Republican and former state senator, accused Democrats on the commission of refusing to compromise. He said Republicans offered several concessions in the interest of agreeing on one set of maps.

Martins and other GOP commissioners said the Democratic commissioners abruptly said in late December that they would no longer participate.

“We didn’t reach agreement, simply because one side turned their backs and walked away,” Martins said.

Martins also questioned whether the Democrats took into account the testimony from over 3,000 New Yorkers, including 630 who spoke at the 27 hearings held to solicit input from different regions of the state.

Martins’ remarks angered Commissioner Eugene Benger, a former general counsel for the state attorney general and Department of Financial Services, who said it was the Republicans who refused to participate fairly. He called Martins’ comments “self-serving” and “factually inaccurate.”

“The Republicans, rather than coming up with proposals, would prefer to sit back and throw rocks,” Benger said.

Benger also said the Democratic commissioners did listen to the testimony and used that input to alter the final maps.

Commission Chair David Imamura, a Democrat, added his own criticisms of the GOP members. He said the maps backed by the Republican commissioners do not accurately reflect the state’s ethnic and racial diversity.

“I did not join this commission to allow my Republican colleagues to hold hostage the hopes of New York’s most disadvantaged voters in an effort to regain GOP majorities,” Imamura said. “I joined this commission to draw fair maps that reflect the public interest.”

In a statement after the meeting, the Republican commissioners said their maps more accurately reflect decisions made by all of the commission members and represent “the Commission’s collective best efforts to produce maps with contiguous and compact districts” that try to keep cities, towns, villages and counties together whenever possible.

It will now be up to the Legislature to decide which map, if any, to support. The Senate and Assembly are dominated by Democrats, making it more likely that the final district lines will look more like the maps that the Democratic commissioners presented. The final lines are due to be finished in a few weeks.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.