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MR. INFLUENTIAL
LEGISLATORS HAVE THEIR EYES ON ASSEMBLYMAN WILLIAM L. PARMENT, WHO AS CO-CHAIRMAN OF THE STATE PANEL ON REDISTRICTING HOLDS THEIR FUTURE IN HIS HANDS

On a country road in rural Chautauqua County lives a man who at the moment just might be one of the most influential politicians in New York State.

Meet Bill Parment, overnight power broker. And an unlikely one at that.

Parment, a little-known member of the Assembly from the Jamestown area, was chosen last month to co-chair a state legislative panel that will decide the twists and turns -- right down to the block -- of every congressional and state legislative district in the state. In essence, he will determine which areas will lose seats in the House of Representatives and the State Legislature and -- more importantly -- which won't.

"Some people are telling me this makes me a player, but I may be a little naive regarding how big an impact this is," said Parment, who is anything but the typical state legislator.

After quietly toiling in the Assembly since 1983, Parment now takes on a job that will make him a major target of cajoling, pressuring, nuzzling and probably a good bit of screaming from lawmakers trying to protect their political futures.

For lawmakers, there isn't a more raw, brutal -- and important -- event than reapportionment. It can propel some careers and end others. It can be a time of rewards, in which favored lawmakers get re-election-friendly districts, and punishment, in which even longtime officeholders get betrayed by colleagues, such as the Albany assemblyman in 1992 who was carved out of his district by one block.

If it were a process dictated by numbers alone, Western New York would face a hammering when new congressional and state legislative district lines are redrawn over the next year. The faster-growing downstate region would wield the political clout.

But thanks to Parment's appointment, there is some cause for optimism among lawmakers who, given the demographics and political realities, should be very concerned.

Parment sought the number-crunching, map-deciphering job, in part, to have a bigger role in Albany. But he lobbied for the post for another reason: "To help preserve seats in my area."

Such a motivation has warmed the hearts of some Western New York Democrats and Republicans.

"I can't think of anything better," Republican U.S. Rep. Amo Houghton said of Parment's selection to the panel that will decide his political fate and that of the 31st congressional district.

Houghton's Southern Tier district is among those considered most vulnerable to elimination during reapportionment.

Does Houghton feel more protected with Parment as the Assembly's point person on redistricting?

"I think so," Houghton said. "First of all, he's a good guy. Second, he's a Democrat, so he has access to (Assembly Speaker) Shelly Silver, which I don't have -- and he's got to listen to Bill Parment."

The job Parment undertakes now goes far beyond the 31st Congressional District. It will involve congressional districts across the state and the makeup of the State Legislature as well.

Though the numbers may dictate that upstate loses both congressional seats, politics dictates that, most likely, one upstate Republican and one New York City-area Democratic seat will go.

But there still will be major ramifications for the remaining 29 congressional districts, all growing by about 60,000 constituents.

How the districts are drawn can create havoc for some incumbents and virtually guarantee re-election for others.

Not everyone is happy to hear Parment's protective talk about his region.

"Orange and Rockland counties are two of the faster-growing counties in New York, so we're assuming we're not going to be shortchanged," said Andrew Zarutskie, a spokesman for Rep. Benjamin Gilman, a lower Hudson Valley Republican whose age -- 78 -- also makes him a target in reapportionment.

Meanwhile, the Assembly's 150 seats and the State Senate's 61 seats will undergo squeezing and shifting to accommodate the population shifts -- a process that could cost several incumbents their jobs.

Exception as legislator

If Albany's top-down power structure turns some legislators into lemmings, Parment is very much the exception. A loyal Democrat, Parment, 58, has routinely broken with legislative leaders on everything from soaring state spending and debt levels to farming issues. And he does so without seeking publicity.

Unassuming, intelligent, a voracious reader, Parment does something strange even by Albany standards: He actually reads the state budget and legislation before casting his vote.

He takes on legislation the way he ran five Boston Marathons: one plodding step at a time. His self-written bio in the New York Red Book, a government directory, is, unlike the volumes of some, only three paragraphs long.

He is a centrist who talks, acts and dresses like a Midwestern legislator, in contrast to the often brash styles of the downstate-dominated New York Legislature. Indeed, his Chautauqua County home, located on a rural road in tiny North Harmony, is closer to the capital of Ohio than it is to Albany.

Parment has earned a reputation over the years as part-maverick, part-intellect of the Assembly.

A loner of sorts at the Capitol, Parment is seldom seen schmoozing in the hallways. He spends his time not on the golf links or in upscale restaurants like many politicians, but at home chopping wood.

"He's an anomaly in politics. I've made jokes that he's the only hermit I've ever known elected to public office," said Roland Kidder, a longtime friend who previously held Parment's Assembly seat.

Rep. Joseph Crowley, a Queens Democrat and congressional newcomer fighting to retain his district, added, "He's kind of mysterious. People don't know much about him, but when he speaks in (closed-door) conference, people always listen to him."

Every lawmaker, member of Congress and lobbyist interviewed said they were, at first, mystified by the selection of Parment, even though his background as a government planner for Chautauqua County gives him an edge.

But Parment, if anything, has honed a reputation for independence. As agriculture committee chairman a couple years ago, he publicly broke with Silver to bash a major dairy bill he said was riddled with flaws. By the next year, he was on another committee.

But last year, he was among the early, though quiet, backers of Silver when then-Majority Leader Michael Bragman, a Syracuse-area Democrat, launched his unsuccessful coup against Silver. Shortly after that, Parment first said he surprised even Silver by telling him he wanted the redistricting panel job. Silver, with a host of big issues on his plate at the time, agreed.

In the past, major decisions on reapportionment were left to the heads of the State Senate and Assembly. That would mean Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno would hold ultimate sway in the process, though Gov. George E. Pataki has said he wants to be a player when the decisions are made next year.

Walking a fine line

Many wonder where that will leave Parment, who has a reputation of diving into assignments and not being left to worry about window dressing.

Parment said, "In conversations with the speaker, I got a sense he was interested in being kept apprised and involved, but a good deal of the decision-making would be made by the (reapportionment) task force."

In reality, though, when major disputes arise, all bets are off as to who will control a process that involves top state lawmakers, county political leaders, mayors, county executives and congressmen.

"I think he's smart enough to be sensitive to political realities," said Assemblyman Thomas DiNapoli, the Nassau County Democratic Party chairman. "There are many districts far from Chautauqua County.

"I also think that everybody assumes one of the first areas to lose in upstate is his general region. He'll be sensitive to handle that to minimize a negative impact on Western New York's representation," he added.

Parment realizes a major part of the job will be telling people no.

"I always proceed on the basis in life of trying to help everyone. I suppose you can't, and with this, if I can't help them, I can't," he said of his fellow politicians looking to keep their seats safe -- or at least easier in which to run.

Last week, Parment was in Manhattan at the task force's offices going over its high-tech computer system, which does in seconds what Parment remembers doing on his hands and knees with crayons on huge maps when he was a county land planner.

By the end of next month, the Census Bureau will give New York its population breakdowns that will show trends over the past decade. It is this data that will guide how the district lines shake out.

But reapportionment is not just about numbers. It's about politics, and rewarding and hurting. Can Parment walk that line?

"He's probably the smartest guy I've ever seen in politics," said Parment's friend, Kidder. "Nobody will know more about reapportionment when this is all done than Bill Parment. And he'll find a way to straddle the two very distinct issues between the politics and the facts."

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