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ANOTHER CENSUS, MORE GERRYMANDERING

Canadians know what to do with the day after Christmas. They call it "boxing day," a time for cleaning up and for stretching the holiday a bit and, of course, staying as far away from work as possible.

But some inconsiderate bureaucrat in our Commerce Department shattered the few hours of holiday repose extracted by members of New York State's delegation to the House of Representatives by announcing the state's census figures.

Commerce also confirmed that New York will lose three of its 34 House seats by 1992. This is what triggered the political jitters among most of those who hope to survive an extremely vicious game of musical chairs.

The first sign of this brawl will be that people living in Rep. X's district will be getting taxpayer-paid mail from Reps. Y and Z, routinely. The object is to enhance the name recognition of Rep. X, Y and Z no matter what happens.

The larger effect is that California will be getting three of its seven new members from New York. The drop in relative population means losses of federal aid to New York, carrying greater state and local tax burdens to those who remain.

California's delegation will number 52 -- one eighth of the entire House. California's clout, powered by non-white voters of both parties, will probably exert tremendous changes in immigration, diplomatic and trade policies. It carries a threat to Buffalo's gains stemming from the Canadian Free Trade Agreement.

The sad duty of slicing three districts from New York's contingent will fall to the State Senate, controlled by the Republicans, and the State Assembly, controlled by the Democrats, and to Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo in the next 15 months.

The Democrats then own two legs of the three-legged table where the surgery will be done. Applying the formula to Western New York, this means that:

Albany will do everything in its power to preserve what are known as the "Nowak" and "LaFalce" districts, and protect two-term member Louise M. Slaughter, the Rochester Democrat, who last year became the first New Yorker in the state to win a perch on the powerful House Rules Committee in nearly two decades.

The first two named districts are now represented by Rep. Henry J. Nowak, D-Buffalo, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Water Resources, and Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Tonawanda, Small Business Committee chairman and the only member of the state delegation on either side of the Capitol to head a full, standing committee.

Metropolitan Buffalo will have great difficulty in retaining its current representation by three members of the House. The Erie-Niagara County area has lost population faster than any urban area in the state during the 1980s. The new districts will have to contain 580,000 people -- compared to the 516,000 guidelines set in 1982. The difference is about equal to the population of the City of Niagara Falls.

This scenario could squeeze Rep. Bill Paxon, a conservative Republican from Amherst, into a general election contest with LaFalce. Prior to the 1990 campaign a victory by LaFalce over Paxon would have been a given.

But since his 1988 campaign, LaFalce has asked the Democratic Party to purge its pro-choice plank and urged Congress to tax workers' fringe benefits and to slow the growth of Social Security pensions. LaFalce had only token opposition last fall but collected just 54 percent of the vote. Republican leaders in his district now pronounce him as vulnerable.

Paxon may be in a little better fighting trim on the other hand, because he has as had to wage two difficult back-to-back campaigns. The situation may confront LaFalce with some difficult decisions. He has one of the state's largest political war chests, most of which he could keep if he retired. But because his last campaign whetted some political appetites, it is likely that LaFalce would have to spend it all, and then some, to win re-election.

The Democratic reapportionment strategy also could push the district now represented by Rep. Amory Houghton, R-Corning, eastward. The 34th Congressional District extends from Westfield on Lake Erie to Elmira on the Susquehanna. To help LaFalce, the Democrats might extend the "Nowak district" down the lakeshore to include Chautauqua County and perhaps a piece of Cattaraugus.

Redistricting produces its share of oddities. In the 1982 reapportionment struggles, LaFalce made it plain he'd be willing to run against then Rep. Jack Kemp, a Republican star, if their districts were thrown together. To ensure Kemp a safe district the GOP strung Kemp's new territory all the way east to Geneva. Legend has it that Kemp never saw his new 500 square miles until he faced the first serious opponent of his congressional career, Buffalo councilman Jim Keane, in 1986.

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