A federal lawsuit filed against the Town of Islip by four Latino residents in June reads just like a successful federal lawsuit filed by black residents against the Town of Hempstead more than two decades ago.
Both lawsuits wanted a federal judge to order a change in the way town council members are elected.
Both wanted an at-large system, where board members represent the entire town, to be replaced with a ward system, where each member represents a specific district.
And it’s not just the demands — and the lawyer, Frederick K. Brewington of Hempstead — that are the same.
It’s the arguments on why such change is necessary.
In Hempstead, based on the 1990 census, the black population still was growing, yet there was no representation in town government.
In addition, the lawsuit contended, the at-large system in place thwarted opportunity for blacks to be elected to the town board, which has a hand in matters ranging from zoning to garbage collection.
Ultimately, U.S. District Court Judge John Gleeson, in a 1997 decision, would agree.
“African-Americans in the Town of Hempstead have no right to be represented on the Town Board . . . they have no right to be protected from political defeat at the polls, even if that defeat is total and persists for decades,” he wrote.
“African-Americans do have a right, however, which is protected by Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to an even playing field,” Gleeson went on. “They have a right to be given a fair shake by the political processes leading to nominations and elections to the Town Board.”
With that, Hempstead went to districts, and residents elected the town’s first black council member, Dorothy Goosby, who today is senior councilwoman.
But change in how lawmakers were elected didn’t just come to Hempstead via federal court lawsuits. It came to Nassau as well, after the county was ordered to replace its Board of Supervisors — whose weighted voting system violated the constitutional provision of one man, one vote — with legislative districts.
That decision led to the election of two black lawmakers, a Republican and a Democrat, in the legislature’s first term. Years later, demographic changes in a third district, along the Nassau-Queens border, bolstered minority representation when a third district elected a black lawmaker.
Just as with Nassau’s legislature, ongoing demographic changes in the Town of Hempstead, at some point, will create the potential for electing minorities from other districts to the town board, too.
“That is the importance of council districts over at-large districts, they create opportunities, and the changes in demographics create more opportunities,” Brewington said in an interview Monday.
A few Long Island towns changed over to the council district system, after voters approved the switch via referendum. But, over the years, voters in other towns, including Islip and Huntington, decided to keep their towns’ at-large systems.
A federal judge ultimately — unless town officials decide to settle — will make the decision in the lawsuit against Islip, where the Latino population continues to grow.
“It’s demographic destiny,” said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. “The Latino population is growing and, like everyone else, they want a seat at the table.”