Yonkers council seeks to redraw districts to favor Democrats

The outside of Yonkers City Hall. (May 15, The outside of Yonkers City Hall. (May 15, 2012) Photo Credit: Faye Murman

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As City Council heavyweights prepare to redraw district boundaries in a once-a-decade exercise that could reshape Yonkers' political landscape, Democrats are openly trying to protect districts where they are vulnerable to challenges.

City Councilman Wilson Terrero, the board's majority leader, said he wants to shift some neighborhoods from his heavily Democratic 2nd District to Councilman Michael Sabatino's 3rd District to boost a Democratic advantage.

"We're trying to make sure he'll be safe the next time around," he told Newsday. "It's a very competitive district."

Sabatino, a Democrat, narrowly won his 3rd District seat in the 2011 elections in a four-way race against Republican Republican Michael Meyer and two other candidates. Sabatino, a political newcomer, won with 51.4 percent of the vote.

Terrero said he also wants to shift some Hispanic voters from his district to the 1st District, which is one of the city's two minority districts -- represented by Councilman Christopher Johnson, a Democrat also elected in 2011.

GOP WILL FIGHT CHANGES

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Councilman John Larkin, the board's Republican minority leader, predicts a "big fight" if Democrats use redistricting to try to safeguard districts from GOP challenges in future City Council elections.

He points out that redistricting, which takes place every decade following the census, is supposed to be about ensuring equal representation and preserving the city's two so-called minority opportunity districts.

"We shouldn't be creating a Democratic opportunity in the process," Larkin said. "If the Democrats are trying to make Yonkers a one-party city, we will certainly fight that."

Exactly how much influence Larkin and the other three Republicans on the board will have over the new boundaries remains unclear. Council Democrats have a 4-3 majority and Mayor Mike Spano is a Democrat.

Terrero said the Democrats won't be targeting the three Republican City Council seats held by Larkin and council members Dennis Shepherd and Mike Breen, which are located mostly in northwestern Yonkers, where GOP support is strong.

"We're not going after anyone's seat. We're just trying to make sure the ones we have stay safe," he said.

Council President Chuck Lesnick, who holds the only citywide seat, points out that Democrats control the mayor's office and have a majority on the City Council for the first time in 40 years. He said the board's Democratic caucus wants to undo the wrongs of previous redistricting efforts.

"Over the years, Republicans heavily gerrymandered the lines," Lesnick said. "We're trying put that back to normal."

A DECADE HAS CHANGED YONKERS' FACE

The council has hired redistricting consultant Phillip Chonigman of the Westchester company GO Political Strategies to draw the proposed district maps, which would be vetted in public hearings and eventually a full council vote.

Lesnick said he expects the redistricting process to take until February, at least. The new boundaries will need to be drawn by early spring, when council hopefuls begin gathering petition signatures to get on the November ballot.

So far, Spano, who took office in 2012, hasn't weighed in on the issue. But the mayor would have to sign off on the updated district boundaries when and if the council approves new districts.

The ethnic and racial makeup of Westchester County's largest city changed substantially from 2000 to 2010 -- the census years -- even as the city's population remained stable at just under 200,000. The biggest gains were among Hispanics, whose population increased by 17,075 to 67,927 in the decade. The African-American population grew by 3,997, to 36,572, and the Asian population increased by 2,030 to 11,556. Meanwhile, the city's white population dropped by 8,656 to 109,351, figures show.

A commission that in 2012 reviewed the city's 12 wards -- a remnant of the time when the Yonkers City Council had 12 council members, not six -- recommended that the existing wards not be changed. That decision has no direct impact on the six council wards, but it might influence the debate, as it indicated that the distribution of the city's population remained essentially unchanged, during the decade.

So, Larkin argued, why mess with the council districts?

"If there hasn't been a major change in the population, we shouldn't have extreme redesigns of the districts," Larkin said.

Regardless of whether the new lines are drawn, they would have to be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice. That requirement was imposed on the city as a result of Civil Rights lawsuits filed against the city in the 1980s. The suits were based on the Voting Rights Act of 1963 and sought to protect the rights of minorities.

At the end of a decade of change, the city's white population and the Republicans elected to represent the mostly white council districts now find themselves facing a problem roughly equivalent to the problem minorities faced in the 1980s, in which their only recourse in the face of a politically motivated redistricting may be a lawsuit.

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