Suffolk Dems vow fairness on redistricting

New congressional districts suggested by a federal magistrate

New congressional districts suggested by a federal magistrate for Long Island (March 6, 2012) (Credit: )

Rick Brand

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When the Suffolk County Legislature first underwent redistricting in 1971, the lines for the 18-member body were mapped on the dining room table of County Executive-elect John V.N. Klein.

"I must admit it was not 100 percent divine inspiration," recalled Klein, a Republican who at the time was presiding officer and took input from GOP powerhouses including former Assembly Speaker Perry Duryea and Suffolk GOP chairman Edwin "Buzz" Schwenk.

The result: an 18-0 Republican legislature.

Last week, the Democrats for the first time in the legislature's history took control of the once-a-decade redrawing of district lines. But to do it, they discarded their own landmark law -- the first of its kind in the state -- that created a nonpartisan reapportionment commission to draw legislative boundary lines.

John Jay LaValle, Suffolk Republican chairman, assailed Democrats for backing the nonpartisan commission before last year's election and dumping it after keeping a majority.

"This is obviously a Democrat power play to hijack the reapportionment process and politicize it. . . . They ought to be ashamed," LaValle said. He raised the specter that Democrats would try to put Republican incumbents such as Tom Cilmi of Bay Shore and Thomas Barraga of West Islip in the same legislative district to remove one GOP incumbent.

"What we have is a perfect example of why a legislature should have no role," said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a not-for-profit citizens lobbying group. "They can't be trusted to leave an independent commission independent." The problem with lawmakers is "they put their own self-interest ahead of the interest of voters."

Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook) said his move to suspend the commission came out of frustration. He said the original reapportionment panel -- made up of retired judges and good government representatives -- missed its February deadline to finish, and that Republicans for a year failed to appoint members who met the law's requirements.

Lindsay said he has no intention of pitting GOP lawmakers against each other, but jibed, "If LaValle was in power, that's what he would do." Lindsay noted that 10 years ago, Republicans put former Democratic Legis. Ginny Fields into his district. She did not run for re-election.

"We'll get it done without too much fuss and do it in a fair manner," Lindsay said.

Democrats also criticized the proposed map that Common Cause put together. Those lines put Democratic lawmakers Sarah Anker of Mount Sinai and Kara Hahn of Setauket in the same district, and did the same to Democrats Wayne Horsley of Babylon and Louis D'Amaro of North Babylon.

"Good government people do not believe that incumbency should have anything to do with redistricting," Lindsay said. "But I beg to differ. I believe that legislators elected by their constituents should not lose their home or their job because the population shifts."

Veteran Legis. Thomas Barraga (R-West Islip) said Lindsay may be trying to be fair. "But when individual members of the majority come and say I need a little bit of West Islip or a little bit of Sag Harbor, my job is going to go down the drain and they couldn't care less," Barraga said.

Barraga knows firsthand: as a state assemblyman he twice nearly lost his seat in reapportionment.

"In every case, the minority party takes the hit," Barraga said. "But if any games are played this time, I will figure it out and I will win."

Legis. DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), the majority leader, said he expects no partisan divide over redistricting. "Suffolk County is different from Nassau and Albany," Gregory said. "We may have our battles, but for the most part, we work together and what's a better statement of that than a fair reapportionment?"