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Redistricting Rage

Residents incensed over redistricting map proposed by

Republican members of redistricting commission;

Republican commissioners refuse to respond

The hundreds of people gathered in Mineola for the last meeting of the Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission on Jan. 3 didn’t throw any tomatoes at the front of the room, but some came close. For over four hours, approximately 50 speakers lambasted the map proposed by the Republican side of the commission, generally characterizing it as a transparent power play with no consideration for the public good or even the law. The Democratic commissioners were not completely spared the public’s ire, but most of the anger was directed at the Republicans; the Democrats’ map, proposed at nearly the last minute on Dec. 31, was praised, although somewhat tepidly, as a fair plan.

Considering the fact that hundreds of angry people were crammed into the Legislative Chambers demanding answers from the Republican commissioners, who by and large refused to respond at all—as though the concerns of the public were beneath their notice—it is perhaps a small miracle that no one was set on fire.

While disliking the results of the commission is one thing, many questions were raised as to the legitimacy of the entire process. Democratic commissioner Bonnie Garone started off the hearing by pointing out that the public did not get the series of hearings on the proposed maps that they were promised, and that the sole Jan. 3 hearing was scheduled at the last minute, without adequate notice, during the holidays.

“Most outrageously, the Republican commissioners on this commission, sitting up here tonight, have refused to even speak with us about how a fair and responsive map might be drawn, or any other redistricting subject,” stated Garone. “Regrettably and embarrassingly, the commission’s chair did not allow this commission to function as a commission at all.” Later on, she characterized the entire process as “a charade.”

Henry Boitel of Rockville Center brought up the issue of whether or not the commission’s work was being properly documented. According to Boitel, he filed a request for documents from the commission under the Freedom of Information Act, only to receive very few, leading him to believe that documentation was essentially being kept off the record. Boitel, one of the few to criticize both sides of the commission, requested that they both preserve all documentation used in creating their maps, because “the courts will want to see it.”

Many speakers also took exception to the fact that voting was to take place that evening, right after the public comment period. “If you are planning to vote tonight, how could you take this public comment here and the comments that you’ve received on your website, take that into consideration to vote? There is clearly no intention to have the public comment heard or even considered,” said Viviana Russel, councilwoman of the Town of North Hempstead.

Another bone of contention was the fact that, since the Republican commissioners refused to speak for whatever reason (the only exception being one comment on redistricting concerns related to Long Beach), non-voting Chairman Francis X. Moroney presented all of the information for the Republican side. Moroney repeatedly denied claims from the Democratic commissioners, and the public, that it was inappropriate for the non-voting chair to present the map in place of the commissioners who had supposedly drawn it.

Despite the fact that no answers were provided, residents repeatedly asked different permutations of the same question: Why does the map split so many well-established communities into two, three, and sometimes even four legislative districts?

“What pressing need requires the legislative partition of communities such as Great Neck, the Five Towns, and Merrick? These three areas have always been united within county legislative districts in the past. Why tear them asunder now? Is it because they contain large numbers of Jewish voters, who are assumed to vote Democratic?” posed David Stonehill, an attorney from Merrick. Stonehill further stated that the map was the product of a “secret and hyper-partisan process,” just like the map drawn by the Republican members of the county legislature in 2011, and it “defiantly” ignored public input.

Laurie Beth Schwartz of Saddle Rock stated that under the new map, most of her neighbors will no longer be in her legislative district, forcing her to “get in a boat” in order to talk to people represented by the same legislator. Furthermore, she contended that this map would make it much harder for legislators to even do their jobs. “A legislator who has to come to a PTA meeting, or a village hall meeting, now has to go to three or four or five different communities just to hear the issues that affect the people that he or she is supposed to be representing,” said Schwartz.

In addition to ordinary citizens, many officials, former and current, came out to renounce the map. Howard Weitzman, former mayor of Great Neck Estates and a former Nassau County Comptroller, put it succinctly: “I love this county. This map breaks my heart.” Weitzman went on to claim that the Republican map creates “the most bald-faced partisan power grab that has ever been seen in the history of Nassau County.”

“We the citizens who fund this commission with our tax dollars deserve an honest, forthright explanation as to why our communities should be split asunder solely to accomplish a 12-7 Republican supermajority in the legislature,” agreed NYS Assemblyman Charles Lavine, 13th District.

While Moroney continued to insist that the map was fair, incumbent-blind (a claim Lavine called “preposterous”) and would hold up under legal scrutiny, several lawyers disagreed. Cynthia Correll, Long Island Regional Chair for the New York Democratic Lawyer’s Council, explained that both the New York State Constitution and the U.S. Supreme Court require districts to be compact and contiguous, which the elongated, cascading district shapes on the new map are not. “It’s very obvious just glancing at these districts that they cannot pass constitutional muster,” said Correll.

Civil rights attorney Fred Brewington agreed with Correll. “You tell your legal experts—whoever said this would stand legal muster, I’m showing up,” he said with feeling. “Notice is being served that this is not a mistake. What you put up there and call a map—it is on purpose…violence has been done to community after community,” said Brewington, denouncing the map as “an abomination.”

Lucia Gomez-Jimenez of La Fuente, one of the many organizations that have joined together as part of the Nassau County United Redistricting Coalition (which has presented its own map for the legislature’s consideration), noted that just because the map was formed with population data does not mean it isn’t a blatant manipulation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “We need to stop just looking at mere numbers and statistics. The reality is that census data can be manipulated in many different ways.”

While the entire exercise was repeatedly criticized as a sad example of partisan politics, Leone Baum of Hempstead reminded the commissioners that it was not always thus. Baum, who observed the work of the Charter Revision Commission at the birth of the county legislature during the ’90s, remembered a different time in Nassau County. “What I observed was serious attention to the task by all commissioners. There was plenty of difference of opinion, but no lockstep as I see in this body of Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other side,” said Baum.

“I know who you are, but I have no idea why you were chosen. Basically, you represent no one,” said Baum to the commissioners.

Despite the intensely partisan atmosphere, not even all Republicans present were on board with the proposed map. Charlene Thompson, an attorney and registered Republican, presented her opposition to the map as a question of ethics. “My fellow Republicans: We have a charge to keep. How will history judge us? As good stewards of the legacy given to us—or did we go along to get along, more concerned about our paychecks than the wrongs being committed in our communities on our watch?” said Thompson. She went on to ask the Republican commissioners if they would stand with her, or if she would be standing alone; as expected, they did not respond.

After hearing all comments, the Democratic legislators made a motion to postpone the vote for two days (by law, the commission’s work must have finished by Jan. 5) in order to allow time to consider public comments and make adjustments, as many speakers had requested. However, in a party line vote, the motion failed. The Democratic map was not voted upon (presumably because the Democratic commissioners no longer wished to lend any legitimacy to the hearing at that point), while the vote on the Republican map failed; while all five Republican commissioners voted for it, the map required six votes to pass.

As a result, after seven months and $500,000, the commission is officially presenting no recommendation to the legislature—although that body will have access to everything the commission worked on, including the maps.

Despite the lack of an official recommendation from the commission, due to the Republican majority, many expect the current Republican map (or even the nearly as divisive Republican map drawn in 2011) to be voted upon by the legislature. Many speakers made it clear that while the Republicans may think they have the muscle to push the map through, it certainly won’t be implemented without a fight.

“I don’t want to sue you,” said Brewington, taking a dramatic pause. “But I will.”