Final District Lines Draw Praise, Criticism
By ROSS BARKAN
A chaotic year of redistricting in New York City is about to reach its end, as the 15-member Districting Commission approved redrawn City Council districts last week.
While not as widely-scrutinized as the State Senate and Assembly redistricting process, the City Council’s decennial redrawing of district lines still attracted criticism from voters’ rights groups and minority advocacy organizations. The City Council is likely to approve the new district maps, released on Nov. 16, creating a few opportunities for insurgent candidates but also ensuring that many incumbents will be poised to return to office when their terms expire next year.
The City Council must vote on the new maps by Dec. 10.
Varying in small but significant ways from the Queens draft proposals unveiled last month, the finalized district lines drew praise from former critics. But some civic and good government groups across the City lamented that there would be no public hearings on the final City Council map.
“There are certainly some improvements where neighborhoods have been put back together, but we’d like to see the City Council hold additional hearings on the maps before they take a vote,” said Rachel Fauss, policy and research manager with Citizens Union. “The public as of now doesn’t have the opportunity to formally weigh in on the maps before this happens. If the Council approves them, they will become the official maps.”
Civic leaders from the predominately South Asian Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park were incensed that current district lines carved up their communities among four City Council districts.
With the westward shift of the 28th Council District’s Lefferts Boulevard boundary, Richmond Hill falls more squarely into a single district, represented by embattled Councilman Ruben Wills (D-Jamaica). Stripped of his ability to make decisions about public money earlier this year, Wills is under investigation for allegedly misappropriating $33,000 in member item funds.
Now 20 percent Asian, the 28th District could produce several viable primary challengers for Wills, who was elected in 2010 after the previous councilman, Tom White Jr., died in office. Though the district is still 54 percent Black, ambitious South Asian and Guyanese civic leaders from the Richmond Hill area could provide a push to become the first individual of their ethnicity to serve in the City Council.
“There is undeniable progress in the map from the last map,” said Ali Najmi, an organizer with SEVA NY, a civic group based in Richmond Hill. “I can see they made an effort to put more of Richmond Hill together. It’s not a perfect map and there could still be more done.”
South Ozone Park, civic groups also noted, is still not placed into a single district.
Line in the Sand
The subtle shifts in boundary lines in the Richmond Hill area were the result of an intense lobbying effort by several organizations. The Asian American Community Coalition on Redistricting and Democracy, a coalition of 14 Asian-American advocacy organizations, and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund were at the forefront of a push to ensure that the new district lines would increase the voting power of the burgeoning Asian and Hispanic populations in Queens and the rest of the City.
Parts of Richmond Hill still remain in neighboring districts and Najmi insisted that Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park should have been placed into their own district. AALDEF created a “Unity Map,” a redistricting proposal that was to some extent incorporated in the District Commission’s final version, to account for the rapid demographic changes in the Borough.
The Asian population of Queens grew 300 times the rate of the rest of the Borough in the last decade and ACCORD advocated for districts to represent that growth. Once the final City Council map was released, ACCORD praised the new district alignments in southwest Queens, but disagreed with the shape of Councilman Dan Halloran’s (R-Whitestone) 19th District, which does not include Oakland Gardens, a neighborhood with a growing Asian population that ACCORD hoped would be joined with nearby Bayside.
“The Bayside area is a disaster right now,” ACCORD spokesman James Hong said.
Unlike before, Briarwood, home to a growing South Asian population, will now be divided between the 29th and 24th Districts, another point of contention for advocacy groups. Briarwood was previously kept solely in the 24th District.
The Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association fumed that Woodhaven was split between Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) and Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley’s (D-Middle Village) districts, despite remaining only in one district in the draft map proposal.
“The Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association is writing to our council members, Elizabeth Crowley and Eric Ulrich,” said Alexander Blenkinsopp, a spokesman for WRBA. “We hope and expect them to oppose the lines as they have been proposed. They need to know that a vote for these lines is a vote against Woodhaven.”
Crowley’s office, however, put out a statement praising her new 30th District. Uniting the ideologically similar neighborhoods of Maspeth and Middle Village, the district could be more Republican-leaning than its predecessor. Crowley defeated Republican Tom Ognibene, now a member of the Districting Commission, in 2009.
“Under the new lines drawn by the redistricting commission, Council Member Crowley’s district would continue to include a diverse group of hardworking middle class families that she has successfully represented the past four years,” Crowley spokesman Eric Yun said in a statement.
The goal of bringing Maspeth and Middle Village into a single council district has long been a challenge, said civic leader and former Republican Assembly candidate Tony Nunziato.
“I’m happy the communities stay together,” Nunziato said. “I don’t like gerrymandering where even businesses don’t know which council member to call.”
The lack of radical district boundary shifts from the last map is not accidental. Protecting incumbent elected officials is one of the many aims of the bipartisan District Commission.
Eight members of the commission are appointed by the City Council party leaders and seven by the mayor. The commission must include at least one member from each borough and include racial and language minority groups.
“Incumbency protection was a dirty word 20 or 30 years ago,” said Carl Hum, executive director of the Districting Commission. “When it came to districting, we equated that with secret backroom deals. The evolution of case law in districting comes to embrace incumbency protection. Sometimes legislators create relationships with constituents. It’s a legitimate concern and legitimate principle to consider in districting.”
Andrew Beveridge is not so sure. A redistricting consultant and sociology professor at Queens College, he lamented the lack of competitive elections on the City and State level. Beveridge said New York should look to California for redistricting guidance. The Golden State redrew their Congressional district lines with a more nonpartisan commission, creating a highly competitive political environment.
“The nonpartisan redistricting had a cataclysmic effect on California, for the good,” Beveridge said.
Reach Reporter Ross Barkan at firstname.lastname@example.org or (718) 357-7400, Ext. 127.