Anxiousness grows over House redistricting

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Dan Janison Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison,

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday since 1997, initially as a staff writer for the New

Picture an anxious round of musical chairs -- with the tune still playing.

With proposed 10-year congressional maps due to be completed within two weeks, speculation over how they will look is reaching fever pitch among those with the most at stake: House incumbents.

And with New York due to lose two of its 29 congressional seats this year, one of the older what-ifs made it back into circulation this week. It involves the prospect that Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola) would end up forced into the same district as Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Roslyn Heights).

That scenario had seemed to lose steam once it became clear that McCarthy, who's one of her national party's best-known backers of gun control, was actively fundraising and reshuffling staff in anticipation of another re-election campaign. For his part, Ackerman has publicly said he expected to gain more of Queens in the redistricting, not more of Nassau.

Election-district maps are always made up of mutually dependent parts. Removing or adding population from one district means adjusting another. There are endless possibilities for where and how districts might cross, straddle or stay within county borders.

So the prospect of removing a McCarthy district might go with keeping another seat intact -- the Brooklyn-Queens one represented by Republican Bob Turner, who succeeded the scandal-ejected Democrat Anthony Weiner.

Yet, after rookie Turner was elected last September, talk began of his seat being broken up.

State technicians working behind closed doors draft lines that can change just before publication. As a result, there was no way Thursday for an outsider to be certain which districts will make it to the chopping block. Another redistricting scenario buzzed about last month even included the unlikely chance that veteran Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) would lose his seat.

To watch this musical-chairs game, you need to know that the same bipartisan task force that recently proposed state legislative lines is also charged with preparing congressional lines. That task force is bipartisan because Republicans under Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) control the Senate, and the Democrats under Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) control the Assembly.

When drawing their own members' districts, these leaders guard their members' interests, of course. For congressional lines, the state leaders' incentives may be blurrier. This is why so many U.S. House members actually hire lobbyists to look after their redistricting interests in Albany.

Skelos Thursday told reporters that the "favored option" in negotiating the House lines is to lose one Republican seat and one Democratic seat. But, he said, the line-crafters also could set up "two fair fights" in which the seats are seen as competitive.

Sounds fair on the surface, though definition is key. Would eliminating the largely Democratic Turner district mark a sacrifice for Republicans, if local Democrats are likely to take it back anyway? Or would eliminating the seat held by the retiring Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-Saugerties) really be a Democratic sacrifice given how close his last opponent came to unseating him?

Notice that in redistricting, a "fair fight" has its own special name -- reflecting the reality that a challenger's fight against an incumbent is usually short of "fair." This is why a map that gives any incumbent less than secure borders becomes big news.

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