By Barrett Seaman —
Dividing up a population as large and diverse as New York State’s into equitable voting blocks for State Assembly, State Senate and U.S. congressional districts is inherently fraught with risk under any circumstances. Think of it as a timed contest to complete a geographical Rubik’s Cube with two teams vying to make the outcome as favorable to their side as possible.
If the state’s population were set in stone, it might not be so hard. But since it changes every ten years according to the results of the Census, and since people move around, are born, and die, someone has to redraw the boundaries. According to the 2020 Census results, New York State as a whole fell 89 people short of maintaining its current 27 congressional districts, which means some incumbent representative is going to lose out come next November.
This year, the task of redrawing districts falls to a new entity, the New York State Independent Redistricting Commission, created in 2014 by state-wide Constitutional referendum with the aspiration of solving the realignment puzzle in as open and bipartisan a process as possible. There are four members who are Democrats, four Republicans and two members with no affiliation to either party. The commission is chaired by Irvington’s own David Imamura, a Democrat, and co-chaired by Republican Jack Martins of Suffolk County, L.I. They have been hopscotching around the state all fall like circuit court judges, holding hearings designed to elicit public opinion.
On Tuesday, Nov. 8, the commission came to White Plains and held a hearing — the seventh of 14 — at the Pace University Law School. In September, the commission gave the public something to shoot at by publishing preliminary draft maps of not one, but two alternative plans.
There was perhaps too much to shoot at, judging from public comments. League of Women Voters of Westchester President Kathy Meany chided the commission for its failure to narrow the options down to one and told them that they should “go back to the drawing board.” Officials representing communities in the far northeastern part of the county, including Bedford, South Salem, Lewisboro and Katonah, complained that the commission’s rendering of district lines in their corner of the county ignored not only the “shared interests” of people in a largely rural area but also many of the shared services among municipalities that would be disrupted. Folks in Yonkers felt the proposed dividing line between Congressional District (CD) 15 and CD 16 broke up communities of shared interest with the neighboring sections of the Bronx, a part of New York City. An official from the Town of Rye pled for the reinstatement of the Village of Rye Brook to the rest of the Town.
A significant portion of the public commentary focused on the commission’s conception of the divide between CD 16, currently represented by Democrat Jamaal Bowman of Yonkers, and CD 17, now represented by Mondaire Jones of White Plains. CD 16 now runs up the Hudson River from Yonkers to Hastings-on-Hudson and across the county to the Connecticut line, taking in all the so-called Sound Shore communities from New Rochelle to Portchester.
One of the two commission renderings of CD 16 retained that east-west swath while pushing the northern boundary all the way to the Croton Reservoir. It stopped on the west where the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge lands, thus separating most but not all of Tarrytown and all of Sleepy Hollow from their neighboring rivertowns to the south.
The most extensive counterproposal to this plan came from Suzanne Berger, chair of the Westchester County Democratic Party and before that chair of Greenburgh Democrats. Berger, who has floated her scheme by a number of key Democratic operatives in the county, argued that communities in the central and southern part of Westchester, are drawn together by their proximity to either Long Island Sound or to the Hudson River. “When I looked at the preliminary maps proposed by this commission,” Berger said at the hearing, “I immediately wondered why the artificial dividing line of I-287 was being used. Why not have Westchester’s two congressional districts run north south, like its rivers and railroads, making a Hudson River District and a Sound Shore District?”
County Legislator Mary Jane Shimsky, whose 12th District includes Dobbs Ferry, Irvington and Ardsley as well as points east in Greenburgh, echoed Berger’s argument that the county’s infrastructure has historically operated on a north-south axis and that the Hudson River towns on both shores if the river belonged in one congressional district. “It is vital to recognize that Westchester County is oriented north-south and not east-west.”
The accompanying maps offer a comparison between the Commission’s two preliminary drafts on the one hand and Berger’s on the other. They show the east-west orientation of CDs 16 and 17 proposed by the Commission and the north-south orientation proposed by Berger. Her CD 16 starts in Yonkers, runs along the Sound Shore and then turns north, working its way up the I-684 corridor into Putnam County.
Berger’s CD 17 starts at Greystone and runs all the way up the river through Peekskill, goes east to include White Plains and then runs up the Saw Mill River corridor towards Mt. Kisco. As does the current district map, it crosses the river to embrace Rockland County.
Given the interlocking nature of political boundaries, even a small tweak on one map can alter the entire sequence of maps going upstate. Each district must include a population as close to 776,000 as possible.
Moreover, as Chair Imamura stressed at the beginning of the hearing, the commission must deliver a final report — with one set of district maps — to the State Legislature by Jan. 15. Later than that would risk running into primary elections. Co-chair Martins stated that the body needs to wrap things up by Dec. 10. With seven more hearings, expected to conclude just before Thanksgiving, there is growing pressure on the body to settle its differences and deliver a single, final map to Albany.