Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Redistricting in New York is Karma
The Democrats gerrymander their demons away
And buy my new novel, The Night Burns Bright!
I didn’t mind running for office in a badly gerrymandered district. Truthfully, I liked all the vastly different neighborhoods I had to visit, whether it was bucolic Marine Park or Sheepshead Bay with its waterfront views or Bensonhurst, where I weaved in and out beneath the thrashing overhead train tracks. In Manhattan Beach, I made sure to grab ice cream from a truck after my door-knocking shift, and fantasized about cutting out early to swim in the surf. And of course, I loved ambling around my home neighborhood of Bay Ridge.
In the spring and summer of 2018, I was attempting to get myself elected to the New York State Senate. It was thrilling and arduous and not something I’d ever try again. One part of the challenge was winning the Democratic primary. I did not win, but had I managed to pull off the victory that September, I would’ve been pitted against Republican Marty Golden, a Donald Trump-supporting state senator in Brooklyn.
Abysmal politics and personal conduct aside, Marty was a character you could, from a distance, find appealing. He had the raffish glow of an old-line machine pol. A ruddy-faced ex-cop who once mysteriously lost his gun, he founded a well-known catering hall, the Bay Ridge Manor, where I had a few baseball team dinners—every Bay Ridge kid, at some point, ended up there—and he would, without fail, plow tens of thousands of his own campaign cash into the Manor for various events, effectively lining his own pockets. To charm voters, he held Christmas tree lightings and popular oldies concerts. He was the kind of guy who collected a disability pension from the NYPD while skydiving. First elected to the City Council in 1997, he jumped to the State Senate in 2002. From early childhood, I knew who he was. Everyone in Bay Ridge knew Marty. At Harbor Fitness on 4th Avenue, I’d inevitably see the state senator, in a white t-shirt, working on the weight machines.
Marty Golden was good at politics, but what made him successful was his district. It had been engineered specifically to elect him, when State Senate Republicans gerrymandered their own seats. Running along southern Brooklyn, the district gobbled up every right-leaning constituency and excluded anyone—particularly public housing residents or anyone occupying multi-story apartments beyond Bay Ridge—who might have the inclination to vote Democrat. After 2002, the Brooklyn Democratic Party under Vito Lopez entered into a non-aggression pact with Marty. This was the state of politics, effectively, for the latter half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first: Democrats cutting deals to protect themselves and safeguard a status quo that kept Republicans in power. Republicans had the State Senate, Democrats the Assembly. It didn’t matter that New York had stopped voting for Republican presidential candidates after Ronald Reagan in 1984. Republicans would get another 34 years in the sun.
At no time in modern New York history have Democrats fully controlled redistricting. Republicans held the State Senate from the late 1960s through 2018, with one brief interruption in 2009 and 2010. In the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, Republicans controlled the Assembly, and last had the majority in 1974. Republican power in New York, for a long time, was a legitimate reflection of voter will, a time when many suburban and upstate counties were GOP-dominated and a liberal faction downstate, represented by men like John Lindsay, Nelson Rockefeller, and Roy Goodman, held sway. The parties in those days, remember, were more ideologically diverse.
But even when polarization kicked in, conservative Republicans still had their hand in running New York. This became the fault of self-dealing Democrats. Mario Cuomo quietly propped them up. Andrew Cuomo did it much more loudly.
The last Republican gerrymander came in 2012, when I was first writing about politics. Cuomo, then the new governor, had promised the Democrats he would support independent redistricting. He realized, upon election, he could be popular as a social liberal while catering to real estate and finance elites. Triangulation at its finest, it worked to Cuomo’s advantage, as he propped up a Republican majority to kill progressive agenda items while dodging all blame. Cuomo did not actually care about independent redistricting. He punted the issue to 2022 and let the Senate Republicans draw their districts. Marty Golden, as well as many Republicans in the suburbs and upstate, got their gerrymanders.
The Republican majority endured during much of Cuomo’s tenure. For part of it, they needed the assistance of a breakaway group of conservative Democrats known as the Independent Democratic Conference, who existed with Cuomo’s support. There were times, around 2015 or 2016, when it seemed this would be a permanent feature of New York politics, an IDC-GOP alliance that locked the Democrats out of power.
The great shift came after 2016. Donald Trump’s election galvanized local Democrats like never before and new grassroots organizations sprung up to challenge the Republican majority and launch primary challenges against IDC members. A wave election year in 2018 finished the job, sweeping the Democrats into the State Senate majority. When I ran for office, I knew Golden was beatable, even in a rigged district. It was just a matter of turning out Democrats who were furious at Trump.
That year mattered tremendously because it set Democrats up to protect and grow their majority in 2020. Come 2022, they would control the redistricting process, building on a huge enrollment edge to craft districts that would cement their majority indefinitely. This week, that’s exactly what happened. After a sham redistricting process that was, a decade ago, designed by Cuomo, the appointed Democratic and Republican commissioners failed to agree on new maps. In turn, the Democrat-run state legislature, with input from House Democrats, got to carve up the districts how they saw fit.
The new state and congressional districts are, in a classic sense, gerrymanders. State lawmakers can insist otherwise to avoid lawsuits but they designed districts to better elect Democrats. Jerry Nadler’s new bi-borough district gains an even weirder shape to better ensure Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican, is beaten in a new House seat that that joins Staten Island with the liberal parts of Brooklyn, including Sunset Park, Park Slope, and Gowanus. On the state level, the old Marty Golden gerrymander is gone. His successor, Andrew Gounardes, gets a safe Democratic district that mirrors the progression of Malliotakis’ seat, roping in liberal, affluent parts of north Brooklyn. Long Island becomes more Democratic through the creatively-drawn 1st District, which now snakes all the way into Nassau County.
Some progressives are angry that the new Malliotakis district, by lumping in Sunset Park, denies them what has traditionally been a community of interest linkage with the Lower East Side. Instead of Nydia Velázquez, the district could have a white Democrat representing them. These concerns are understandable, if shortsighted—a Latina representative can do far less for you if she’s sitting in the minority in Congress—and overlooks the fact that Velázquez herself probably signed off on these changes. She doesn’t want to be locked out of the majority.
Various community groups also denounced the Democrat-drawn maps for not taking into account their suggestions to better unite various Asian, Latino, and Black communities. Democrats took some suggestions from the so-called Unity Map but not all. It’s a shame Assembly Democrats didn’t do more to protect South Asian representation in Queens neighborhoods like Richmond Hill. The Unity Map, though, still calls for a more Republican-tinged Malliotakis district, which is something the Democrats, understandably, could not do.
Democrats, to better reflect population growth, demographic trends, and safeguard their State Senate supermajority, added two new seats, one in Brooklyn and the other Queens. The Brooklyn district could elect a Chinese-American legislator, since it takes in the heart of Bensonhurst. The Queens district, running through Ridgewood, Glendale, and Woodhaven, also includes Greenpoint in Brooklyn and will likely elect a Latino or Latina. Already, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America is running and is probably going to have the organization’s support. She seems well-positioned to win the open Democratic primary.
Republicans who cry foul about the new redistricting are hypocrites. If the Democrats no longer have any interest in independent redistricting, Republicans certainly never did. Every decade, without fail, they would draw skewed State Senate maps that defied voting trends. By the 2010s, the Republican majority was blatantly anti-democratic, given how many more Democrats there were than Republicans and how votes were cast in statewide contests. The Democratic gerrymander is a form of revenge, but it’s also a far better reflection of reality. If a Republican hasn’t won statewide since 2002, why should any Republicans hope to control the upper chamber of the state legislature? Their dominance was artificial.
For New York City, an unbreakable Democratic majority in the State Senate is good. The lawmakers making decisions will be coming from this city and be attuned to urban issues. The era of right-wing suburban lawmakers deciding the future of education or taxation or housing in the five boroughs is over and never coming back. There will certainly be new challenges in the 2020s and powerful lobbies are training their cash on Democrats, hoping to buy them off. The moderates, at least, are going to try to marginalize the socialists as their numbers in both chambers continue to grow. Kathy Hochul may be, in time, tugged rightward.
Whatever happens, though, no Trump-loving Republican will get to chair a committee in the State Senate ever again.