Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
The Bloody Redistricting of Yore
What's old is new again
Edna Kelly had a decision to make. The first woman to represent Brooklyn in Congress, she had served in Washington for almost 20 years, becoming a leading expert on foreign affairs. Traveling across the world, she championed NATO and helped to write foreign policy legislation that, among other things, created the Peace Corps. A member of the Democratic National Committee, Kelly was both a studious policy wonk and a savvy party insider, and hoped to continue her career in the House, where she was one of the top Democrats on the Foreign Affairs Committee.
But 1968 would spell doom for Kelly, who had easily won re-election every two years in a heavily Jewish district spanning Flatbush, Crown Heights, Kensington, Borough Park and Bedford-Stuyvesant, where the African American population was expanding during her tenure. Party leaders in Albany had been chopping up Bedford-Stuyvesant among white lawmakers like Kelly, diluting the power of the Black vote there. Kelly was one of four white Brooklyn representatives—Frank Brasco, Emmanuel Celler, and John Rooney were the others—that had a sizable number of Black voters in their districts. With the way the districts had been engineered, it was virtually impossible to elect a Black member of Congress in Brooklyn.
That would change when the United States Supreme Court ordered a redistricting of the borough, declaring districts must be of roughly equal size and not have such population disparities. Kelly’s old 12th District was redrawn dramatically in an effort to, at last, elect another Black member to New York’s House delegation. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of Harlem had been, for decades, the sole Black representative from the five boroughs.
Kelly weighed her options. She could run for the new 12th, pitting herself against Shirley Chisholm, a charismatic state assemblywoman, and State Senator William Thompson. She wouldn’t be for the first or last white lawmaker to try to represent a district drawn to send a nonwhite candidate to Washington, but her race there would have been political suicide. She was still a reliable liberal. Winning, anyway, probably wouldn’t be plausible. The district was primarily concentrated in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which she had never fully represented. It would be Chisholm’s destiny to win the seat.
Instead, Kelly chose to fight for survival against a congressman who had even more seniority than her: Emanuel Celler, the dean of the entire House. First elected when Warren Harding was president, Celler chaired the House Judiciary Committee and was the author of the Hart-Celler Act, which eliminated racist quotas against Asian and other nonwhite immigrant groups, inaugurating the modern era of immigration in America. Celler represented a neighboring district spanning Brooklyn and Queens, including the Rockaways. Defeating Celler, Kelly believed, was her only chance to stay in Washington.
It was Celler’s first serious primary fight since 1922. The Brooklyn Democratic Party machine backed him, casting Kelly as the insurgent. More of the turf was known to Celler than Kelly; ultimately, he easily defeated her, taking 56 percent to her 32 percent. A third candidate won 12 percent of the vote. Kelly’s career in Congress was over.
Celler would survive a few more years before a 31-year-old attorney named Elizabeth Holtzman decided to challenge him, following another round of redistricting, in 1972. Holtzman shocked the political world and won.
Every 10 years, following the Census, House districts are redrawn across America. Political careers are inevitably made and broken in such cycles. Power bases are created or wiped away overnight. In 2022, New York’s redistricting process was remarkably chaotic, spawning the sort of clashes that would have been unimaginable a month ago.
These days, the outcome of redistricting is wholly conceived, understandably, as a matter of red vs. blue, which party controls Congress. In both 2012 and 2022, Republicans more effectively gerrymandered districts in various states, handing them an advantage in the fall elections. Democrats control the House now and Republicans are expected to have the majority again come 2023. Given the cyclical nature of American politics, no party governs for a particularly long time.
This was not true in the twentieth century. For a 60-year stretch, from the 1930s until the 1990s, Democrats controlled the House almost every single year. Their coalition, built in the New Deal era, was forged around regional instinct and tradition, with ideology tossed into the mix. Left-leaning Democratic Party machines held power in the North. Under Franklin Roosevelt, Democrats had become the party of the New Deal and organized labor, winning the loyalty of millions with far-reaching federal programs like Social Security. The Roosevelt legacy was quite durable; decades later, elderly voters with otherwise right-wing views would still cast votes for Democratic candidates, remembering how the four-term president had led America out of the Great Depression and through World War II.
Roosevelt’s legacy on civil rights had been limited enough to not alienate the conservative southern whites who made up a crucial and ultimately unsustainable flank of the Democratic coalition. Since at least the Civil War, the Democratic Party had dominated the South, where liberalism was associated with Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party. Southern Democrats persisted well into the twentieth century. Even after Lyndon Johnson, a southern Democrat himself, heroically signed civil rights legislation into law in the 1960s, the realignment of the political parties along regional and ideological lines moved slowly enough to allow Democrats to control the House, continuously, into the 1990s.
The point here is that redistricting in 1962 or 1972 or 1982 or even 1992 was less about existential combat for control of the House and more about protecting favored incumbents, complying with court rulings, or punishing certain rivals. It was an exercise in ego and survival. And in New York, it could get particularly vicious.
For more than a century, there have been 435 members of the House of Representatives. Few Americans realize that this number has not changed as America’s population has more than tripled. The number of seats are allocated based on the population of individual states. Larger states get more seats and the allocation changes based on population growth. A state can add population but still lose seats if other states grow faster. This has been the long-running story of New York.
In 1920, New York was America’s largest state. It was the largest, again, in 1930, 1940, 1950, and 1960. Only in 1970 did California surpass New York. Population growth in the South and West would continue, unabated, for the rest of the twentieth century. Texas and Florida would grow larger and other states, if smaller than New York, would be able to lay claim to some bigger slice of the 435 seats as time wore on.
Imagine, for a moment, a world where political power in the United States was almost exclusively centered in New York City, where an overwhelming majority of the population of the state was concentrated. The suburbs would not boom until the 1950s and 1960s. New York had the largest House delegation and most of these members were jammed into the five boroughs.
By modern standards, New York congressional districts in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s were extraordinarily small, shrunken down to accommodate the sheer number of lawmakers that had to come from the city. Members of Congress represented districts the size of the sort found in the state legislature. Meyer London, the socialist hero of Manhattan, held a district that spanned merely the Lower East Side. Fiorello La Guardia represented a district that only encompassed East Harlem. The aforementioned Emanuel Celler began his career in a seat that ran through a small chunk of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville. Neighborhood-sized House seats were the norm.
The future was expansion and contraction. Each decade brought a reduction in New York’s House delegation—states elsewhere were growing, inevitably, at a faster rate than New York’s—and a growth in the geographical size of the remaining districts. Celler’s career reflected this reality; he went from representing two neighborhoods to parts of two boroughs. As the number of House districts in New York disappeared, Democrats and Republicans alike began to understand that the end of each decade meant winning the backroom war to keep their political careers alive.
The state legislature controlled the redistricting process. The speaker of the Assembly and the State Senate majority leader held the fates of the congressional delegation in their hands. Republicans almost always held the State Senate and lost control of the State Assembly for good in 1974. Party bosses would have to negotiate in such a way to ensure each party kept a purchase in the state and well-liked incumbents were protected. The courts, like in the case of Edna Kelly, could intervene as well. White politicians, particularly in the Democratic Party, had to account for the growth of Black and Spanish-speaking voters, carving out new districts to create representation.
In every decade of the postwar period, New York had to shed seats. Incumbents would have to run against each other or retire. In 1982, Democrat Leo Zeferetti lost his storied Brooklyn district, which roped in Bay Ridge, Sunset Park, and Park Slope. Zeferetti had replaced Hugh Carey in Congress after Carey ascended to the governor’s mansion. Brooklyn had to drop at least one seat and Zeferetti was the odd man out, forced instead to run against Republican Guy Molinari in a new seat that took in all of Staten Island and parts of southern Brooklyn, including Bay Ridge. Molinari, a Republican power broker, easily won.
The most intriguing redistricting war came in southern Brooklyn, where a young congressman named Chuck Schumer was elected in 1980. Schumer was on crowded turf. He had replaced Elizabeth Holtzman—slayer of Emanuel Celler—who ran for the Senate in 1980. Schumer was in his early 30s and knew his district could end up on the chopping block in 1982 or later. He lacked seniority and represented a similar constituency as his House neighbor, Steve Solarz, a rising star in Washington. Solarz had been a mentor to Schumer and backed the young politician when he first ran for Assembly in 1974, taking the seat Solarz had vacated to run for Congress.
Southern Brooklyn would eventually be too small to hold two brainy, highly ambitious, and Jewish Democrats. In 1982, New York was set to lose five seats. Schumer could have easily seen his Marine Park, Midwood, and East Flatbush district erased. Solarz was a high-ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and a prodigious fundraiser. He was prepared to defend his district, proving his mettle on the fundraising circuit. The idea was simple: legislative leaders would respect power and not go against a congressman who could raise large sums of money.
“As Albert Camus once wrote, ‘Nothing so wonderfully concentrates a man’s mind as the imminent thought of execution,’” Solarz, then 41, told the Times. “In five minutes in a back room somewhere, someone drawing lines on a map draws a line here and another line there and in an instant eight years of incredibly hard work can become instantaneously irrelevant.”
Indeed. Solarz was more likely to survive an execution than Schumer. But the freshman, ten years Solarz’ junior, won a seat on the Banking Committee and kept pace with Solarz when it came to raising cash. Schumer learned an early lesson he would take with him throughout his political career: go straight for Wall Street. By the spring of 1982, Schumer had nearly $500,000, a huge sum of money for the era. Solarz banked almost $700,000. Albany didn’t want to touch either man, and didn’t.
The 1980s were kind to Solarz. He bought a spacious home in Virginia, traveled across the world, and accumulated seniority in the House, evolving into a foreign policy mandarin. He was a neoconservative before the term existed, articulating a muscular, military-first approach to global affairs that found much purchase in the Reagan period. He was a proud Israel hawk and an early booster of the Gulf War. His destiny, it seemed, was secretary of state. His constituents on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn rarely saw him.
If you asked the average Democrat in the 1980s who had a brighter future, Schumer or Solarz, the answer would have been the latter. Schumer was a young backbencher with no particular policy expertise; someday, pundits figured, he could run for mayor or governor if he played his cards right. He wasn’t particularly charismatic, though he hustled quite hard and had a knack, in the newspaper era, of grabbing headlines.
Solarz’s star continued to burn bright. He was a backer of Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992 and seemed, at last, ready to rise to secretary of state. He was still fundraising prodigiously. It was only a matter of when, not if, Solarz would get his next promotion.
But the end was near. New York was due to lose three more seats in 1992. Schumer, like Solarz, was a press-hound, but he also tended to constituents back home. He raced to Brooklyn whenever he could. There was no parade, ribbon-cutting, or party meeting Schumer was going to miss. Both men were self-aggrandizing, with one crucial difference: Schumer also cared about helping colleagues. If his alliance-building was self-interested, it was still appreciated. Among New York’s sprawling House delegation, Schumer was a favorite. Albany looked kindly on him, too. Schumer had hired Assembly Speaker Saul Weprin’s counsel to work in his D.C. office.
Solarz was imperious and grating and spent vanishingly little time in New York. He kept only a mother-in-law’s address in Brooklyn, preferring to entertain D.C. luminaries at his suburban Virginia home. The Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature, in turn, blew his district to pieces in 1992.
Solarz didn’t see it coming. Suddenly, he had three options, all of them daunting. He could run against Ted Weiss, a Democratic stalwart, on the West Side of Manhattan. He could challenge Bill Green, the liberal Republican congressman, on the East Side. Or he could try his luck in a district—taking in Sunset Park, the Lower East Side, and Bushwick—that was newly-drawn to elect a Hispanic representative.
After extensive polling, he chose the worst option, heading for the open seat in Brooklyn. Community activists and party leaders were furious. The district was supposed to expand Hispanic representation, not save Solarz. Solarz, who was already damaged in the House banking scandal, didn’t care, unloading his war chest in a desperate attempt to defeat the Democrat many in the party preferred on a personal level, Nydia Velázquez. Velázquez beat Solarz by about six points.
It was the worst option because either Manhattan race could have ended well for Solarz. Weiss unexpectedly died days before the Democratic primary. Local party leaders elevated a veteran assemblyman named Jerry Nadler to replace him.
On the East Side, Green was not as entrenched as he appeared. In past cycles, he always fended off, by slim margins, Democratic opponents. In 1992, that would change, when a spirited challenge from City Councilwoman Carolyn Maloney ended his career.
Twenty years later, Solarz is dead and Schumer, of course, is the majority leader of the United States Senate. Maloney and Nadler are still in Congress. Come August 23rd, in another redistricting year, they will face off against each other in a Democratic primary. One of them will be gone in January.