Residents Call For Changes To Lines
By DOMENICK RAFTER
Room 213 of Queens Borough Hall was not nearly big enough to contain the welcome the New York State Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment (LATFOR) received when they came to Queens Tuesday afternoon. The room was reduced to standing room only 15 minutes before the Queens town hall meeting discussing LATFOR’s proposed redistricting lines was scheduled to begin.
|Members of the Jamaica branch of the NAACP gathered outside Queens Borough Hall before the hearing on redistricting to protest the proposed lines.
Tribune Photo by Ira Cohen.
The welcome was not very warm, however. More than 100 people piled into the room with something to say — “our neighborhoods are being divided,” “the system is corrupt,” “we demand better,” “we have no faith in you.”
Before the hearing began, members of the Jamaica branch of the NAACP stood outside Borough Hall holding signs calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to veto the district lines.
LATFOR’s chairmen, Assemblyman John McEneny (D-Albany) and State Sen. Mike Nozzolio (R-Seneca Falls), were far from their Upstate homes, and were facing an angry mob of Queens residents who felt their needs were not listened to. Now was their chance to make them listen.
From the moment the meeting was called to order, the frustration in the room began boiling over. McEneny announced that elected officials would open the meeting with their testimony, an announcement that was met with immediate reaction. Bob Freidrich, President of the Glen Oaks Village furiously shouted down McEneny.
“This is a public hearing, the public should be allowed to speak first,” he demanded to chants of “Public First, Public First.”
Freidreich and more than a dozen members of Eastern Queens United wearing matching shirts, attended the meeting, asking to unite the neighborhoods of Bellerose, Floral Park, Glen Oaks, New Hyde Park and Queens Village into one district. Under LATFOR’s maps, the neighborhoods are united in a Senate district, but split between three Assembly districts. State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), who attended wearing an Eastern Queens United shirt, called out Nozzolio, accusing him of not paying attention to his testimony.
“I’ve always said that’s it’s the Democrats and Republicans, but in this case, it is the Republicans who are acting disgraceful,” Avella said.
Nozzolio skirmished with Avella during his testimony, asking him for written testimony and proof of his claims that Senate Republicans have disenfranchised minority votes in Queens.
The basis of LATFOR’s defense was that the new districts were drawn to strengthen minority representation. Nozzolio said the creation of the Asian-majority 16th district necessitated the gerrymandered map that was released last week.
But State Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria), an outspoken opponent of LATFOR’s maps - and existence - took issue with that argument, pointing out that minority areas outside the city like Hempstead in Nassau County and New Rochelle in Westchester County were split up into districts that were a majority of whites and Republicans.
“Today you are being called out,” Gianaris said to LATFOR’s members.
He also refused to yield to any explanation that his criticism was created out of anger for being drawn into the same district as State Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst).
“I will not sit here and plead to the panel to change its mind and keep my home in the district I represent,” Gianaris said. “I’m less concerned about myself and more concerned about the community I represent and the people in this room”.
Councilman Ruben Wills (D-South Jamaica) took issue with the new 10th Senate district, which includes most of Jamaica, Richmond Hill, South Ozone Park and JFK Airport, but then crosses Jamaica Bay and includes Far Rockaway - with no direct connection through the district.
McEneny said the strange district lines were meant to include minority communities of the same demographic together, even if they are on opposite sides of the county.
“The Federal Voting Rights Act requires us to wander around and gather minority communities,” he said. “People don’t live in square boxes”.
James Hong, a spokesman for The Asian American Community Coalition on Redistricting and Democracy - a group pushing for greater Asian-American representation in redistricting - said that while his group appreciates the drawing of an Asian-American Senate district, his community “resents” being labeled an excuse for the gerrymandering elsewhere in the borough. He said an Asian-American majority could be drawn in Flushing and communities to the East, rather than a meandering district that includes Rego Park, Elmhurst and Woodside.
“The current map divides the neighborhood of Flushing,” Hong said. “The dilution of the Asian vote between senate districts is unacceptable.”
Hong also took issue with the 24th Assembly district, which stretches from Bellerose to Richmond Hill. The district has a growing and influential South Asian population, which is promising, Hong said, but the district also tears neighborhoods apart.
“This district splits off many voters from their own neighborhoods,” he said.
Representatives from neighborhood civics across the Borough spoke, including some from Astoria and Woodhaven, whose neighborhoods were divided in the new maps. The fiery comments continued past sunset. Attempting to quell the near revolt in the room, Nozzolio, sounding almost defeated, reminded the crowd that the maps they saw were not the final product.
“The lines that were put out were meant for your review,” he said. “No plan is perfect.”
Reach Reporter Domenick Rafter at firstname.lastname@example.org or (718) 357-7400 Ext. 125.