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The Point: Suffolk battle lines form over new boundaries

These new legislative boundaries are hailed by

 These new legislative boundaries are hailed by Rob Calarco, the departing presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature, as properly reflecting population changes and consolidating communities of interest, for example in Huntington and Brookhaven. But Minority Leader Kevin McCaffrey says the lines wrongly cut through East End towns.

Last month’s surprising election results have created a unique partisan battleground in Suffolk County against a backdrop of rarefied state and national redistricting struggles.

Democratic lawmakers are moving to start enacting a new legislative district map for its 18 seats for the coming decade, as expected. The twist, however, is that Republican lawmakers will take over the majority next month after pulling off unexpected victories at the polls.

So with Steve Bellone, a Democrat, still in power as county executive, the Democratic conference’s plan is to follow through with their proposed lines, approve them, and have them take hold for the coming decade based on U.S. Census results.

Rob Calarco, the Suffolk Legislature's current presiding officer, asserts that the drawing of lines by the existing legislative class is justified because a bipartisan redistricting commission wasn’t constituted last month as prescribed in the county charter. Calarco and Republican leaders blame each other for a lack of sufficient qualified appointees in place for the commission to carry out the process.

Calarco defends the proposed map on which he said a public hearing is expected Tuesday before it proceeds to the Ways and Means Committee and then to the full legislature. He promotes several features of it, such as improved regard for "communities of interest" in the 9th and 11th districts, as well as four "majority-minority" districts instead of the current two, and less slashing across town boundaries, as is now the case in Huntington. The map also avoids such measures as drawing a "finger" from a district to include the home of a certain legislator or candidate, as has sometimes been the practice.

But hold on. A resistant Legis. Kevin McCaffrey, the GOP minority leader and P.O.-in-waiting, predictably pans the planned exercise as "a desperate power grab by a lame-duck legislature."

McCaffrey strongly hints that a legal challenge lies ahead, saying the proposed map threatens to violate county charter provisions with the way its lines cut across East End towns. The Lindenhurst Republican also suggests the population of districts as drawn by the current majority would vary by more than the 3% limit imposed in the law. And he accuses Democrats of trying to "bypass" a commission process and full public hearings.

Once a redistricting plan is instituted, it cannot be then redone or amended, as Calarco notes. From McCaffrey’s point of view, a court challenge and tactical delay could push the final drawing process into the period of his GOP majority. The bottom line here may well turn out to be another instance in which timing is everything in politics.

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