Picking New York judges
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone is lining up some big names for his Tuesday conference on New York judicial reform.
Recent additions to the speaker list include Jerry Nadler, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, who will join with academic and good government groups for discussions about improving the judicial system and, in particular, the way judges are picked around the state.
The virtual government event gives Bellone a chance to be associated with a big statewide issue and some prominent Democratic figures. That can’t hurt as the term-limited politician ponders chances for higher office.
The forum’s subject also allows Bellone to poke a rival about a hot issue. New York voters often shrug in confusion at the sight of different parties cross-endorsing the same candidates for judgeships on their ballots, leaving little voter choice. In an October letter to the state’s Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, Bellone railed against this fusion voting system for judicial races, which he wrote has "enabled party leaders to strike backroom political deals that reward allies and traffic in nepotism."
One party leader with whom Bellone has clashed on this issue in the past is fellow Suffolk power broker Rich Schaffer, the county’s Democratic chair, who has often been involved in cross-endorsement deals with minor parties.
The bad blood between the two goes back a long way. Bellone has been open about his preference for a system that changes the level of influence party leaders have in the judgeship process. He said in his October letter that good judges in NY "deserve to have a system that does not require them to go back to political party leaders who will unilaterally decide whether they get to remain on the bench or be elevated to a higher position."
The Point asked Schaffer what he thought about the prospect of changing the judicial candidate process and reducing the role of party leaders in it. He said he was for it:
"Anytime my life could be made easier I'm a big supporter and I'm glad to see Steve is finally looking to make my life easier."
— Mark Chiusano @mjchiusano
Eyes back on CD1 race
The Democratic race for CD1 got a little more crowded on Wednesday, with Suffolk County Legislature Deputy Presiding Officer Kara Hahn announcing her bid for the seat that has a good chance of being vacated by gubernatorial hopeful Lee Zeldin.
That’s a tantalizing prospect for Democrats who have failed to take down the four-term GOP incumbent despite spending millions in closely watched recent races. So tantalizing that lots of jockeying has gone on behind the scenes already, long before the 2022 general election.
One offshoot of the Dem scrambling has to do with Rich Schaffer, the Suffolk County Democratic chair who already donated to and threw his personal support behind County Legis. Bridget Fleming for CD1, including at a May launch event.
Now Schaffer said Hahn asked him to come to her own launch event Wednesday in Stony Brook.
He explained that he had already given his personal support to Fleming, and that "I'm keeping my commitment to her."
Hahn campaign manager Kelley Hardon sent The Point a statement about the candidate’s other support from community leaders: "She's launching her campaign today in the town that she grew up in, surrounded by teachers, small business owners, nurses, and political leaders who have seen her work up close."
The party leader does appear to be offering something to Hahn’s campaign: He says he committed to a $1,000 contribution.
Schaffer said Hahn told him he could still sit in the audience, despite his support for Fleming. That’s what he plans to do, but his position in the primary hasn’t changed, and any potential pictures of him at the event or the like wouldn’t signal otherwise.
"There should be absolutely zero confusion about who I’m supporting," Schaffer said.
— Mark Chiusano @mjchiusano
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The suburbs come together
As the State Legislature heads toward the end of session, there’s one particular bill that has Long Island’s attention, even though its primary sponsor is from the Hudson Valley.
The bill, introduced by State Sen. James Skoufis of Orange County, would provide guidance and standards on redistricting for the state’s 23 counties that have their own charters, counties that in the past have had "significant leeway when it comes to redistricting," Skoufis told The Point.
The bill is expected to pass through both houses’ rules committees Wednesday and Skoufis said he is "optimistic" that the legislature will vote on it next week.
The bill would make a decadelong mark on elections in both Nassau and Suffolk counties, along with Westchester, Rockland, Orange, Dutchess, Putnam and others.
"That’s why you’re seeing it coalesce as a natural suburban effort," Skoufis said. "This has a significant impact on our suburban counties … I have worked hand and glove with the Long Island delegation. They’re very involved."
State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said the bill clarifies the law and sets some "guardrails" and "guiding principles" behind how to draw the lines for county legislative districts.
"I think it’s got a good shot because having fairly-drawn legislative districts is a prerequisite to having representation that actually reflects the voters of any county," Kaminsky said. "That’s why it’s a conference priority in the Senate. We have one chance to get this right for the next decade … There’s a synergy between the Hudson Valley and Long Island wanting to do this."
State Sens. John Brooks, Jim Gaughran, Anna Kaplan and Kevin Thomas are also co-sponsoring the bill.
The bill would require counties to create districts that are contiguous and compact, and that the districts "shall not be drawn to discourage competition or for the purpose of favoring or disfavoring incumbents or other particular candidates or political parties." And the bill would require that the difference in population between the most and least populous districts be less than 5%.
The bill would open counties up to legal action if their districts don’t comply.
"That’s the whole point, to create a structure by which the counties have to follow these rules, and if they don’t, they get sued," Skoufis added.
Skoufis noted that time is of the essence.
"This is at the very top of my list of priority bills … and I’m putting my own political capital into it," Skoufis said. "A lot of it speaks to the timing. If we don’t get it done this year, we’ll see you next decade."
— Randi F. Marshall @RandiMarshall