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Democratic plan for new Suffolk legislature districts prompts GOP complaints

A plan for new districts for Suffolk County

A plan for new districts for Suffolk County legislators by outgoing Legis. Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue), shown, has prompted complaints by Republicans. Credit: Morgan Campbell.

Democrat Robert Calarco, the outgoing leader of the Suffolk County Legislature, has proposed new legislative district lines for the next decade — a move Republicans are calling "a desperate power grab" before Democrats lose control of the legislature on Jan. 1.

Calarco, who lost reelection last month, said the proposed district map would increase the number of majority-minority districts from two to four.

The plan would shift district lines to account for population growth in areas including the East End, Brentwood and Huntington Station as documented in the 2020 U.S. Census, Calarco said.

The proposal also would squeeze four Republican legislators into two districts, without pitting any Democratic incumbents against each other, GOP officials said.

The new district map could pass by the end of the year, after one public hearing, because Democrats have the votes to push it through, Minority Leader Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) said.

Under county law, a bipartisan reapportionment commission is supposed to draw new district lines and hold four public hearings.

Calarco said aides in his legislative office drew the map after McCaffrey and Majority Leader Susan Berland (D-Dix Hills) failed to nominate commission members by the Nov. 10 deadline.

"What we will have are 18 fairly drawn districts, where voters will have the opportunity to pick candidates they think will best represent their views, and I think there will be real competition, which is important," Calarco said.

McCaffrey, who is expected to be elected as legislative presiding officer next month, said Democrats were trying to "steal the redistricting process" before Republicans take over the legislature in January.

Democrats hold 10 districts while there are eight members of the Republican caucus, including Legis. Nicholas Caracappa (C-Selden).

Republicans picked up three seats in the Nov. 2 election.

McCaffrey suggested Calarco's plan may violate federal voting rights laws by dividing up minority populations in Huntington Station in order to strengthen Democratic districts and weaken Republicans' hold on others.

McCaffrey said Republicans may consider "legal recourse" if the plan passes and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone signs it.

"It's really disrespectful to the people of Suffolk County, what they're trying to do here," McCaffrey said of Democrats.

A representative for Bellone, a Democrat, did not respond to a request for comment about Calarco's redistricting plan.

Michael Li, senior counsel of the Democracy Program for the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute that works with the New York University Law School, said Suffolk Democrats may lack a legal basis for approving a map by the end of the year, and for disregarding the commission.

The county "charter calls for an open and transparent and bipartisan process," Li said.

"The charter clearly envisioned something that is not controlled by one party alone, but instead involves both parties and the public," Li said.

Acting legislative counsel Basia Braddish declined to comment on Calarco's proposal, and County Attorney Dennis Cohen did not respond to a request for comment.

The Suffolk County Charter gives the reapportionment commission until February 2022 to propose new district maps. If the panel doesn’t meet the deadline, the legislature has until June 2022 to craft and approve a redistricting plan.

The county legislature must approve new district lines for all 18 seats every 10 years, based on U.S. Census data.

Each district is required to contain about the same population of about 85,000.

The new districts also are supposed to keep together "communities of common interest," in which residents may have similar concerns or benefit from cohesive representation.

The 2020 Census pegged Suffolk's population at 1,525,920, compared with 1,493,350 in 2010.

Under a 2007 county law, Democrats and Republicans are supposed to nominate four members each to the redistricting commission: two retired judges, a voter rights advocate and a "minority organization" representative.

To date, the county legislature has never used the bipartisan commission’s map.

In 2012, Democrats who controlled the legislature approved their own redistricting plan, after the commission failed to meet a deadline.

Nancy Marr, a member of the 2012 commission and president of the League of Women Voters of Brookhaven, told Newsday recently: "I had heard that nobody in the legislature wanted it done anyway, that they liked things the way they were."

Voters typically favor bipartisan commissions handling the redistricting process, "but what you're seeing here is that the people in power oftentimes don't like them and will find ways to ignore them," Li said.

McCaffrey said he submitted names for the commission just days after the deadline, and that the brief delay shouldn’t be the "fatal flaw in having public input."

Berland did not respond to requests for comment.

Calarco’s office released the redistricting map to legislators last Thursday morning, hours before a legislative panel voted to schedule it for a public hearing on Tuesday at 2 p.m.

Calarco said the changes to the current district map include:

  • Brentwood and Central Islip, which are in the 9th legislative district, would be split up so Brentwood would take up most of the 9th and Central Islip would take up most of the 10th.
  • The 11th, represented by Legis. Steve Flotteron (R-Brightwaters), would cover more of southern Islip Town, taking over a large section of the current 10th District. That would place Flotteron in the same district as newly elected Republican Trish Bergin-Weichbrodt, of East Islip.
  • .
  • The 17th, held by Legis. Tom Donnelly (D-Deer Park), would become a majority-minority district. It would expand into northern Babylon Town and communities in northwest Islip Town, including Deer Park, North Bay Shore and parts of Brentwood.
  • The boundaries of the 7th District, held by Calarco, would shift to include North Bellport, Bellport Village and Gordon Heights and have a minority population of about 40%. Republican Dominick Thorne, who defeated Calarco in November, would represent the district.

Also, according to McCaffrey and 13th District Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), Trotta would be placed in the same district as Republican Legis.-elect Manuel Esteban, of East Northport, who defeated Berland last month.

Voting rights advocates praised the increase in majority-minority districts.

Minority residents make up 36.6% of Suffolk County's population, according to the 2020 Census.

Calarco's plan also could make it easier for more candidates of color to get elected, voting rights advocates said. Currently, 15 of the 18 county legislators are white.

Civil rights attorney Frederic Brewington said officials typically reduce the voting power of minority residents through "packing" communities of color into one district so they have only one representative, or "cracking" them into multiple districts to fracture their vote.

Giving underrepresented residents more of a voice in government, "means a more diverse and more positive opportunity for government to reflect the communities that they serve," Brewington said.

McCaffrey cited what he characterized as equity issues in Calarco's plan, noting that the Huntington Station area, which is about 45% Black and Hispanic, would be split into three separate districts

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