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Let the redistricting wars begin

Reapportionment get used to the word. The process of redrawing district lines will prove the driving force behind all politics in Erie County and New York State throughout 2011. You'll feel it everywhere. And we will ask:

Which member of Congress will be squeezed out of Western New York? Newcomer Chris Lee, a Republican rising star?

Or will the process pit against each other Democrats Brian Higgins and Louise Slaughter in a battle for the ages?

What's in store for the state level, where local population loss will eliminate familiar names now serving in Albany?

And how about the County Legislature, where downsizing could prompt major turf wars there, too?

You could almost feel the dynamic gaining momentum last week when the Census Bureau released statistics pointing to the loss of two congressional seats in New York State -- Higgins looking at Slaughter; Slaughter looking at Higgins; Lee eyeing both.

One place where battle lines are forming appears to be the State Senate. Mike Gianaris, the Queens assemblyman who will graduate to the Senate next week, is signaling a new Democratic approach. He told the Politics Column last week that the seat swiped by Republican Mark Grisanti from incumbent Democrat Antoine Thompson last month is already in his sights.

"Obviously, that district is a top priority and we're going to win it back," he said.

Gianaris has big plans for the Legislature's upper house. He flatly predicts the slim GOP majority (32-30) will evaporate before the end of 2011. A special election is bound to occur one way or another, he reasons, and the Dems are ready.

"You can expect a vacancy during the course of 2011, and the Democrats have won every single special election for the State Senate in the last five years," he said. "It's just a question of when we take the majority," Gianaris added, "not if."

Senate Dems know that a political perfect storm had to form for Thompson to lose the safest Democratic seat in upstate New York. They know that Thompson never spent the last $120,000 of his campaign account, or that Grisanti backers like former Surrogate Judge Joe Mattina ponied up last-minute bucks to advertise outrage over attacks on Grisanti's role as a defense lawyer.

All of the little elements that contributed to the perfect storm, they reason, cannot form again.

History provides the GOP with an answer to that -- reapportionment. Since back in 1812, when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry approved a reapportioned district resembling a salamander to benefit his Democratic-Republican Party (and bestowing upon him political immortality with the term "gerrymandering"), those in power have managed to carve district lines to their own benefit.

Now the reapportionment process itself comes under scrutiny. Gianaris pointed out that 53 of New York's 62 senators signed Mayor Ed Koch's New York Uprising pledge to support redistricting by an "independent" commission rather than a partisan legislature.

He is already questioning whether Senate Republicans will honor their pledge and establish some kind of independent redistricting panel, also favored by the new governor, Andrew Cuomo.

All of this will prove especially interesting as even the concept of an "independent" reapportionment commission will be intensely scrutinized over the next few weeks.

Is anything in a town like Albany truly independent?

It will be a most fascinating process to watch. And the pessimists among us will say that somehow, somewhere old Elbridge Gerry -- along with his pet salamander -- are watching.


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