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Redistricting may spare 4 now in House; Despite state's loss of two seats, western part might fare well in coming battle.

All four House members currently representing parts of Western New York might survive the upcoming elimination of two of the state's 29 congressional districts -- even though, starting in 2013, Erie County is likely to be represented by only two members, down from three today.

That's the evolving conventional wisdom after two recent events turned the politics of redistricting upside down.

First, Kathleen C. Hochul, a Democrat, surprisingly won a special election in the heavily Republican 26th District, thereby possibly saving a seat that some experts had seen as a target for extinction.

And second, Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Democrat, made the mistake of going all atwitter with self-made soft porn portraiture, thereby ending his congressional career and making the elimination of his district in Queens and Brooklyn increasingly likely.

Of course, another special-election upset or another fleshy online over-share could upend conventional wisdom yet again.

But for now, experts are talking about a congressional map with two Democratic-leaning districts in the Buffalo area, as well as a Rochester-based district for Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, who now represents parts of Buffalo and Niagara County. A safe Republican seat would link the farm country east of Buffalo with the Southern Tier.

While all four local lawmakers could survive in such circumstances, a map like that would reduce the number of House members representing Erie County from three to two.

David Wasserman, House editor of the Cook Political Report and one of the nation's leading redistricting experts, envisioned that prospect on a hypothetical map he recently drew up.

That map would give Hochul's district the Niagara County Democratic bastions currently part of Slaughter's "earmuff" district.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, would represent more of his home city as well as Cattaraugus County, while Slaughter would get a Monroe County-based district closer to her home.

"Everybody wins," Wasserman said.

That's fairly likely, but not entirely certain.

President Obama, a Democrat, received 59 percent of the vote in the hypothetical districts for Higgins and Slaughter, but only 50.5 percent in Hochul's make-believe district.

Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, would get a reliably Republican district that extends from the Southern Tier northward into Genesee County.

"It's not a sure bet that the Democratic districts would be entirely safe unless one of them is stretched all the way to Syracuse," Wasserman added. And while his hypothetical map does not do that, "I wouldn't put it past the Democrats in Albany."

While legislators can redraw district lines innumerable ways, several other sources also foresee districts similar to those Wasserman envisioned, which are designed to protect incumbents, as state legislators generally do.

Hochul's victory is one big reason why the map may end up looking like Wasserman's proposal.

But Wasserman doesn't draw up the new districts. State legislators do.

And state legislators will be under huge pressure from Washington to give Hochul a safer Democratic district, according to several sources in Washington and Western New York.

"For candidate recruitment reasons, Democrats don't want to see somebody like Kathy run, win and then be eliminated," said former Rep. John J. LaFalce, a Town of Tonawanda Democrat and friend of Hochul who left Congress after the 2002 reapportionment joined his district with that of Slaughter.

"There is a vested interest in the Democratic Party in keeping and enhancing her seat," LaFalce added.

Weiner enhanced that possibility when he got caught with his pants down.

Weiner's plight increased the chance that his district -- probably represented by a junior Democrat -- would be the most likely in the state to get carved up.

"The awkwardness is, when you look upstate, where does the Republican seat come from?" said former Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Amherst, a longtime redistricting aficionado.

Wasserman and many others point to the Syracuse-based district of Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-Onondaga Hill, as the most likely Republican seat to go.

Buerkle's 25th District, which meanders from the eastern Rochester suburbs along Lake Ontario to Syracuse, could be easily chopped up in a way that could give friendly territory to Slaughter and several other lawmakers.

Sources single out Buerkle as a likely target for several reasons. Most notably, Republicans may be willing to sacrifice that district because Buerkle barely won it from a Democrat last year and has struggled to raise funds for a re-election bid.

"At this point, I think it's a strong possibility that Buerkle's district could be carved up to help other members," Wasserman said.

Which raises the question: Why should Central New York lose a House seat when Slaughter's district lost the most residents in the past decade, followed by that of Higgins?

For one thing, Western New York lost a seat in the 2002 reapportionment.

For another, Buffalo, Rochester, Western New York's other counties and the Southern Tier still have enough people for four districts, even though the census figures mandate that the average population of a district rise to 717,707 from the current 654,360.

"It was always going to be hard to eliminate a district in Western New York," Wasserman said.

In fact, even a "good government" map drawn up by Ravi Nanwani, a law student at Columbia University, shows four districts surviving, with only two of them in Erie County.

But Nanwani's map, drafted as part of the DrawCongress.org project of the university's "Redistricting and Gerrymandering" course, is not one that Hochul would like.

It utterly obliterates the current district lines, creating a district that combines most of Buffalo and the Tonawandas with Niagara County. Below and to the east of that would be a largely rural and Republican district that Hochul presumably would run to represent, while Slaughter would get a Rochester-based district.

"This map does not take into account any data from elections, and I did not take incumbency into account," Nanwani said. "My goal was to draw compact districts based on current political subdivision lines."

In other words, the Nanwani map is the sort that a nonpartisan redistricting commission might come up with -- if that approach stood a snowball's chance of being adopted in Albany.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has been pushing such a plan for the state's legislative districts as well as its House seats, but it has gone nowhere in the State Legislature, where Senate Republicans have ignored their pledge to support it.

What are the chances for adopting such a nonpartisan approach?

"Zero," said Bill Samuels, chairman of the New Roosevelt Initiative, a leading supporter of the plan.

Senate Republicans fear a nonpartisan route would produce districts that give Democrats control of the chamber, said former Assemblyman William L. Parment, a Jamestown Democrat and longtime redistricting expert.

That most likely leaves redistricting in the hands of the Legislative Task Force for Redistricting. That bicameral panel will begin drawing maps this fall, with an eye toward bringing a plan to the Legislature by next February, said Assemblyman John J. McEneny, an Albany Democrat and the top Assemblyman on the panel.

While drawing up prospective districts is a favorite parlor game for political soothsayers, their maps don't take into account all sorts of other questions. Such as:

Will Higgins' hiring of Patricia Lynch and Associates to lobby for him on the redistricting process make any difference? Lynch formerly worked for Sheldon Silver, the powerful Assembly speaker.?

Will Silver bear a grudge against Higgins, who, while a member of the Assembly, had supported a coup to overthrow the speaker?

Will Slaughter's age -- she will be 82 in August -- hurt her in the redistricting process? The Legislature eliminated the districts of octogenarian lawmakers in 1992 and in 2002.

Will chopping up Reed's Southern Tier district prove easier than eliminating Buerkle district?

Only one thing remains certain: It's going to be brutal.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com