For the first time, a bipartisan panel charged with drawing New York’s legislative district lines has struck a compromise agreement, a shift from the gridlock characterizing the body's brief existence.
And it could mean changes for Assembly members who represent Buffalo.
The 10-person panel on Thursday unanimously passed draft state Assembly district lines that are significantly different from those created by the Assembly itself earlier this year. The new lines appear to demonstrate the danger posed to incumbent politicians when line-drawing is not centered on protecting their interests.
In drawing the new draft lines – under court order – the 10-person commission sought to create districts with only small deviations in population among the districts, as well as districts that do not unnecessarily split cities, towns and counties.
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State Assembly lines for the 2022 elections, which were based on an agreement struck by Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Republican Minority Leader Will Barclay, advantaged incumbents of both parties. Those districts featured significantly greater population differences between districts than those proposed Thursday.
An example of the upheaval the new lines might create can be seen in Buffalo, among the major upstate cities where the commission sought to consolidate representation among fewer districts.
Under the current lines drawn by the Assembly, a handful of Assembly Democrats represent parts of Buffalo: Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, Assemblyman William Conrad, Assemblywoman Monica Wallace, Assemblyman Patrick Burke and Assemblyman Jonathan Rivera.
But the new, proposed lines would center Buffalo in three Assembly districts: One covering the city’s East Side, the other the West Side and a third containing part of South Buffalo. Among other ripples, that would significantly reshape the district of Peoples-Stokes, one of the most powerful Democrats in the state Legislature.
The argument for fewer districts covering a city is that representation will be dedicated only to representing that city, not also catering to suburban constituents. But a map focusing on such considerations could cause political headaches for incumbents, including forcing sitting lawmakers to run against one another or in unfamiliar terrain.
The redistricting commission will now hold a series of hearings around the state, including its first hearing on Jan. 9 in Buffalo. The 10-person panel is then charged with deciding on the final plan by this spring and submitting it to the Legislature.
Even if that final agreement is struck, the process faces uncertainty. The Legislature will still have a role in approving or rejecting the lines drawn by the commission, and some Assembly members may not want the political headaches the new lines would cause. The redistricting commission’s redrawing of the Assembly lines faces an ongoing legal challenge.
Republicans, anticipating that Assembly district lines will be redrawn early in 2023, are optimistic their next round of campaigns might offer the chance to strengthen their numbers if districts are drawn to avoid partisan gerrymandering.
In 2014, New York voters passed a constitutional amendment creating the bipartisan, 10-person redistricting commission. The idea was to take the drawing of new districts, spurred by once-a-decade new census data, out of the hands of the state legislators who might gerrymander lines for personal benefit.
The 10-person panel – which is largely appointed by leaders of both parties in the state Legislature – deadlocked in its initial attempt to draw lines for congressional, Senate and Assembly districts in New York. Instead, a bloc of five Republican-leaning commissioners submitted one plan to the Legislature, a bloc of five Democratic-leaning commissioners another. After that deadlock, the lines were instead drawn by Democrats who control the state Legislature in a manner that was successfully challenged in court by Republicans.
Following a landmark state Court of Appeals decision in April, a court-appointed special master drew congressional districts, which some Democrats believe cost the party a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives following November’s election. The special master also drew state Senate lines. But litigation challenging Assembly lines for 2022 was judged to have been filed too late, and instead, the process has now begun anew.
Under a court order, the redistricting commission was charged with attempting to draw fairer state Assembly districts that will stand in 2024 and the remainder of the decade. And after the tumult of the past year, the bipartisan panel for the first time came together to draw the single, consensus map.
“So I would say this is a significant moment, maybe even a historic one, in which a single map is being produced by the commission,” said Commissioner Charles Nesbitt, the body’s vice chair and a Republican appointee who once served as the Assembly minority leader.
Since last winter’s deadlock, several new commissioners have replaced the old ones, and commissioners of both parties credited the new blood with helping broker the compromise map that unanimously passed on Thursday.
“There’s a bipartisan will to get this done – in an appropriate way – that perhaps didn’t exist before,” Nesbitt said.
The shift in membership included its chairman. On Thursday, Ken Jenkins, a Democrat who was recently appointed to the body by New York Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, was elected the chair by fellow commissioners.