Cuomo Plays Both Sides In Political Duel
By HENRY STERN
Politics has its ups and downs, as this week’s events show.
There was a bright spot. Gov. Andrew Cuomo reaffirmed his decision, first announced in February, that he would veto any redistricting bill passed by the Legislature that did not provide for an independent districting commission to draw the boundaries of Congressional, state Senate and Assembly districts.
The most recent Census, taken in 2010 and reported in 2011, showed the population of the United States at 308,745,538, of whom 19,378,102 lived in New York State.
In the 10 years since the previous census, New York State gained only 2.1 percent in population while the nation’s population rose 9.7 percent. New York State’s share of the nation’s population is 6.276 percent. Since there are now 50 states while in the first Census in 1790 there were 13, New York has held up fairly well over the 220 years of counting heads. The last half-century, however, has not been kind to the Empire State, which peaked at 45 Congressional districts in 1930 and 1940, but has steadily declined in political strength since World War II.
New York’s slow increase in the most recent decade, compared with the much faster gains of states in the South and Southwest, has resulted in the state’s loss of two House seats, which in the 2012 election will bring our total number of districts down from 29 to 27. Texas gained the largest number of seats in the last decade, going from 32 to 36. Nevada had the highest percentage increase, 35.1 percent. The Silver State still has fewer people than the norm for one district, now about 710,000. The red states generally outgrew the blue states in the early 21st century, and as the Constitution makes this a zero-sum game, the gains came at the expense of the blue states.
With the loss of two New York seats, the question arises: which two districts out of the 29 will be made to disappear by whichever legislative body, independent commission or Federal court ends up drawing the final lines? Normally when the flock is culled, the weaker sheep are slaughtered, but New York has a plethora of rookies, as a result of libidinous mishaps.
The last 17 months have seen three sudden departures of New York State Congressmen, all based on a variety of sexual acts and images, although none involved actual intercourse. The first to go was Democrat Eric Massa, from the Southern Tier counties, who was credibly accused of groping his young male staffers and resigned in March 2010. Next was Chris Lee, a Republican whose district lies between the suburbs of Buffalo and Rochester, who resigned in February 2011, the day a photograph of the shirtless legislator appeared on Craigslist. He was outed by Gawker, but exposure is almost inevitable when one trolls for companionship on the Internet.
The most important legislator to fall, also entangled by the Web, was Democrat Anthony Weiner, who accidentally posted a sexually suggestive photo of himself on Twitter on May 27. After a prolonged period of denial, followed by apology and refusal to resign, Weiner gave in on June 16 and left his Democratic seat in Brooklyn and Queens vacant. Queens Democratic leader Joseph Crowley selected Assemblyman David Weprin to run in a special election Sept. 13 to fill the position through the end of next year, when it is likely to be abolished. If he loses, David Weprin will be in the unique position of being a former member of the State Assembly, the City Council and the United States Congress, as well as being the son of the late Assembly Speaker, Saul Weprin, and the brother of City Councilman Mark Weprin, who is regarded as upwardly mobile.
The reform movement in New York State public affairs, which consists of traditional, well-regarded government organizations, joined by Mayor Ed Koch’s New York Uprising, has made independent redistricting a priority for 2011. So far the legislature has ignored their wishes, instead convening its own instrument for redistricting, called LATFOR, an acronym for Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment.
LATFOR met last Wednesday for the first time. Its co-chairs are Republican Sen. Michael Nozzolio from Seneca Falls and Democratic Assemblyman Jack McEneny of Albany. The meeting was brief and uneventful, but after it ended Mr. McEneny called Gov. Cuomo’s potential rejection “a very petty approach” based on “a dumb reason.” Those remarks were gratuitous and injudicious, even from the assemblyman’s point of view. One does not attack a popular governor without some preparation, definition of the issue, and sophisticated choice of language.
Reformers had worried about Gov. Cuomo’s adherence to his pledge to veto lines not drawn by an independent commission, fearing that as the price for the enormously successful legislative session, he may have promised to let the legislative leaders have their way on redistricting, which is of the utmost concern to them because it may determine who controls the Senate next year. The Assembly is 2-1 Democratic so the Senate will be the battleground. The last time the Democrats organized the Senate, 2009-10, was considered a disaster. Previously the Republicans had held power for 44 years, in good part due to gerrymandering under an unspoken understanding in which each party controlled one house. Divided government was helpful to whomever was governor. At the same time, it made it more difficult to fix responsibility for anything, and in the long term was not helpful to the State.
The McEneny sally Wednesday and the press inquiry that followed it provided an opportunity for Cuomo to express his views. The governor said that his attitude “is crystal clear, has been for a long time: I understand the assemblyman’s point of view, he wants to draw his own lines... I want to have lines drawn that represent the people of the state of New York, not a particular assemblyman.”
In a move announced late last Friday (considered the optimal time to put out stories of divorces and other possibly ill-received news), Gov. Cuomo did make a concession to the state’s party bosses, in particular Democratic Leaders Joseph Crowley of Queens and Vito Lopez of Brooklyn. In a move slammed by the editorial pages of The Daily News and The New York Times, Cuomo set dates for special elections to fill six vacant Assembly seats and one Congressional seat (Anthony Weiner’s). The election date is Sept. 13, which coincides with Primary Day, if there are any primaries.
Cuomo was not mandated to call special elections, and could have let the voters in the affected districts select their own party nominees in a September primary leading to a November general election. Instead, the party leader in each county will choose their party’s nominees for the vacant public offices. Since Democrats prevail in most districts, that means the Democratic county leaders will decide who the incoming elected officials will be. In the normal course of events, this would make the elected officials particularly responsive to the wishes and preferences of the county leaders who have selected them to hold office. The public is effectively removed from the selection process until two years have passed, during which the selected nominee will have all the privileges of incumbency.
On one hand, how much heavy lifting is it fair to ask Gov. Cuomo to do? On the other, what kind of democracy allows one man to choose so many public officials without the consent of the governed?