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Koch: Promises, promises on redistricting

Ed Koch is a former mayor of New York City and the founder of New York Uprising.

Before this month is over, the state legislature and its committee on redistricting may well have approved the lines of the new legislative and congressional districts, so that candidates can start preparing for this year's primaries and general election. The showdown, building since 2010, between the legislature -- bent on continuing to provide incumbents with safe seats -- and reform-minded Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, will finally occur.

The latter, keeping his commitment, will veto the legislature's expected gerrymandered lines. The legislature will attempt to override the governor's veto. Hopefully, reform and good government will prevail and the veto will be sustained. At that point, the courts will enter the fray and decide what the lines should be.

It didn't have to be this way.

During the 2010 campaign and subsequent legislative session, New York Uprising and good government groups gained commitments from 138 of New York's 212 state legislators to reform our broken partisan redistricting process, commonly known as gerrymandering. The goal of our efforts was much grander than simply changing the way district boundaries are drawn. We aspired to reduce the dysfunction in Albany that stagnates innumerable issues facing the state and offends our enshrined principles of democracy. Standing with us were New Yorkers from across the state, 76 percent of whom believe legislators should have a diminished role in redistricting and that an independent commission should draw district lines.

Citizens Union, the premier good government group, released a comprehensive report detailing precisely what the voters know instinctively: the majority parties in Albany -- State Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats -- for decades have drawn districts to perpetuate their grip on power and to protect their political careers. The report definitively shows how redistricting is rigged to discourage competitive elections and lessen the accountability of lawmakers.

Gerrymandering is all about legislative self-preservation. Consider just how far this self-interested "ends justify the means" logic has gone in diminishing our democracy:

While Albany has been dubbed the most dysfunctional legislature in the country, incumbents have been inoculated through gerrymandering, enabling them to enjoy a 96 percent re-election rate between 2002 and 2010.

In 1968, 1 of every 100 state legislative candidates ran without any major party opponent on the ballot. In 2010, nearly 1 in 5 did so. In short 20 percent of candidates could win an election without ever leaving their house to actually speak to voters.

State legislators elected in 2010 won by a whopping average margin of victory of 51 percent. Incumbents won by a sky-high 61 percent on average between 2002 and 2010.

Recognizing elections are preordained, voters have expressed their view by not showing up. Only 1 in 3 eligible voters in New York even feel its worth casting a vote.

And degrading our democracy at times to a mere formality hasn't been enough. The communities and people of Long Island in particular have been treated as little more than pawns in rearranging the chessboard of power.

The decades-long incumbent and party protection plan in Long Island creates a legislative conference that does not remotely reflect the diversity of the residents of Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Gerrymandering protects incumbents who are disproportionately white men and prevents Long Island from reflecting its present diversity. Every single Long Island State Senate district is represented by a white male. The Assembly hardly fares better. Eighteen of 21 Assembly districts are represented by white males. The entire Long Island delegation has one African-American Assembly member, one Hispanic Assembly member and two women. Yet Long Island's population is 77 percent white, 16 percent Hispanic, 9 percent African-American, 5 percent Asian-American, and 3 percent multiracial. And that's not to mention the lack of representation for the female population.

The preservation of this distorted status quo is achieved in the State Senate by splitting African-American communities across multiple legislative districts in Babylon and Hempstead, and Hispanic communities in Islip and Hempstead. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), architect of the 2002 gerrymandering, managed to sever minority communities on both the eastern and western borders of his own district.

Assembly Democrats create districts in Republican-friendly Long Island that are larger in population size than typical districts, so they have more leeway to draw more districts in Democratic-friendly areas of the state. The 21 Assembly districts on Long Island are overpopulated by about 4,630 people.

The Senate Republicans do the opposite, underpopulating all nine Long Island Senate districts. Similar techniques are used elsewhere outside of Democratic-Party stronghold New York City. Thirty-two of 36 districts outside of the city are underpopulated. And the Senate Republicans are reportedly considering adding a new Senate seat this year in their redistricting plan.

The time to end the decline of our local democracy is overdue. One-hundred thirty-eight legislators appeared to concur, including every member of the Republican Senate conference during the 2010 campaign season. They made the commitment to New Yorkers to create an independent commission that would draw fair lines according to objective criteria in an open process. And if they don't fulfill that pledge, Gov. Cuomo will have no choice but to keep his pledge to New Yorkers to veto the partisan-drawn lines of the legislature.

Regrettably, in Albany, a handshake appears to mean little and a written pledge is nothing more than a campaign poster to be discarded. Time is running out for the state legislators to show integrity and pass real and meaningful redistricting reform. The integrity of our democratic system deserves no less.


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