At one time, taking the politics out of legislative redistricting in New York looked as likely as taking the water out of rain. But shifting winds make independent redistricting now appear distinctly possible. Gov.-elect Andrew M. Cuomo has pledged to form an independent commission to draw the borders of legislative and congressional districts. He should start the new year restating his campaign commitments.
Cuomo has been unambiguous. During the campaign he talked about wrestling the process out of the hands of "partisan elected politicians" and giving it to a commission that works only for the people. In one of the detailed platform books issued during his campaign, Cuomo not only promised to back creation of an independent redistricting commission, but pledged "to veto any redistricting plan in 2012 that reflects partisan gerrymandering and ensure that the state has set itself on a path to reforming the process itself."
But not every Albany decision-maker values independent redistricting. In that vein, we are thinking of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the comfortably nestled Manhattan Democrat for whom redistricting provides a once-a-decade opportunity to consolidate power and place people in office who will do his bidding. Silver certainly knows that creating an independent commission to come up with an impartial plan and passing that plan into law are two different things. Cuomo, during an inaugural speech presumably attended by the Assembly speaker, should clearly state how he will use the powers of his office to ensure independent, nonpartisan control of the process.
New York doesn't have to make this up out of whole cloth. Twenty states, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey and California, have worked to drain the politics from redistricting, but none more successfully than Iowa. There, a nonpartisan agency produces a computer-generated map, its lines based only on population. The only place politics can intrude is in the necessary approval of the governor and General Assembly. If one or both rejects it, the agency has two more cracks at it. The third effort would be subject to amendment. If no plan is approved, the task would be assigned to the Iowa Supreme Court.
The system works, and it's important that it does. Where elections are competitive, incumbents have reason to heed their constituents. Where they are not, incumbents can snub voters, feather the nests of their patrons and still be re-elected.
That's how it is in New York, where redistricting is a corrupt undertaking. Its obvious goal is to protect incumbents by letting them choose their voters and freezing out candidates from the other parties. Incumbent lawmakers are re-elected time after time, with no fear of voter rejection. Some local calcified incumbents lost their seats this year not because of their unexceptional performance but because a younger generation from within their parties tired of waiting for their exit.
The independent redrawing of state legislative boundaries is of greater importance than the redrawing of congressional lines. Power in the House and U.S. Senate can shift between parties several times during a lifetime. But the State Assembly will shift to Republican control around the time pigs fly. The Senate's recent pitch back and forth between Republican, Democratic and then Republican control again is exceedingly rare.
Among the prizes in the frenzied battle for the State Senate this year was control of redistricting. Both parties suffer from the near-sighted view that remaining in office depends not on governing well but on drawing the district boundaries that keep their personal gravy train chugging along the track to Mediocreville.
Several approaches to independent redistricting are circulating in Albany. One, by Assemblyman Michael Gianaris, D-Queens, and Sen. David Valesky, D-Oneida, has been endorsed by former New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch, who has traveled the state pushing for reform.
But prospects are uncertain. While the issue is gathering steam, within the Legislature and among New Yorkers, it would be unlike the leaders of either the Assembly or the Senate to willingly give up the electoral security blanket they have fashioned for themselves.
Cuomo's role is critical. He needs to wield that public demand with one hand while gripping his veto pen with the other. The Legislature must either agree to independent redistricting or face the certainty of rejection. Nothing else will do.