By John Stemen
A lengthy process put into place eight years ago through a statewide referendum failed to produce new Congressional and State Legislative Districts for New York State—paving the way for the creation of new districts by Democrats in the State Senate and Assembly that might have led to modest gains for a party already firmly in control in the Empire State.
At press time, the future political realignment of the state remained murky following State Supreme Court Judge Patrick McAllister’s ruling March 31st that the new political lines are unconstitutional, and represent gerrymandering by the majority Democratic Party.
State voters approved a plan in 2014 establishing a 10-member redistricting panel, equally split between Republicans and Democrats. The redrawing process occurs every 10 years following release of Census figures.
The 2020 count showed that New York was slated to lose a seat in Congress—although population losses for the state were not as great as some feared. After two tries, the redistricting committee failed to agree on a set of maps setting the boundaries for new Congressional and State Legislative Districts.
In the event the redistricting committee can’t agree on new legislative district boundaries, the process reverts to the state legislature. The Democratic supermajority in Albany likely was anticipating a role in the process, and produced new legislative district maps in short order when the committee couldn’t reach a consensus on the new maps. These were approved in both the State Senate and Assembly, and signed into law by Governor Kathy Hochul.
On March 3rd, McAllister issued what was thought to be the final verdict on the new districts. He said there simply wouldn’t be enough time to redraw districts in time for the 2022 state and federal elections. But he did not rule out the possibility of an order in the near future to redraw the lines in time to hold Special Elections in every Congressional and State Legislative seat in the state in 2023.
With many political analysts weighing in that the new maps would stand, at least for the 2022 elections, candidates for Congress and the State Legislature were already announcing plans to run in the new districts.
On March 31st, Judge McAllister did issue a special order, requesting the Democrats in the State Legislature redraw district lines. McAllister harshly criticized the new maps, saying the legislature’s Democrats “joyfully” violated the state’s constitution by engaging in “partisan gerrymandering.”
In recent weeks, several other states’ redistricting efforts have come under court challenge, including those in North Carolina and Maryland, on grounds similar to McAllister’s.
Within hours of the State Supreme Court’s decision, New York Governor Kathy Hochul and State Attorney General Letitia James issued perhaps the shortest joint press statement in the state’s political history, saying simply, “We intend to appeal this decision.” Some judicial experts opined that this action might place a stay on McAllister’s order—and with primaries for Congress and the legislature coming up June 28th, the newly redrawn lines would come back into play. However, McAllister’s order held out the possibility of delaying the primaries until August while new district lines are drawn.
Changes outlined in the Democrats’ district maps would be dramatic for Uticans, as Oneida County would be split between an expanded 21st Congressional District now represented by Republican Elise Stefanik, and a new 19th Congressional District. Rome and some northern and western Oneida County communities were placed in the new 21st, while Utica and southern Oneida County communities were in the new 19th. The new 19th is the home of Democratic Congressman Antonio Delgado of Rhinebeck. Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro of Tivoli, the 2018 Republican Gubernatorial candidate, is running against Delgado.
The only federal or state district in the Utica area largely remaining the same in the maps McAllister termed “political gerrymandering” would be the 119th State Assembly District, which would include Utica, Rome, and surrounding communities. Incumbent Democrat Marianne Buttenschon and Republican candidate John Zielinski are vying for that Assembly seat.
However, under the majority Democrats’ plan shelved by the State Supreme Court, Utica and Rome would no longer have the same State Senate seat. A new 55th Senate District would include Utica and southern Oneida County Communities, along with Pompey in Onondaga County—the home of Democratic 53rd Senate District Representative Rachel May. Recent media reports have said that Fanny Villameal of Onondaga, the Executive Director of the YWCA of Syracuse and Onondaga County was considering opposing May as a Republican candidate.
Meanwhile, the 49th State Senatorial District long represented by State Senator Joseph Griffo, a Republican, would include Rome and other northern and western Oneida County communities—and would stretch to the northwest to include Oswego County and some other areas not currently in the district.
For decades, redistricting changed the shape of New York’s Congressional districts, but there was one constant—there was always a ‘Utica Congressional seat.’ Through the years, residents who lived in or near Utica and knew the community well represented Utica and surrounding communities in Congress. Whether you admired them or despised them, they were people you regularly saw in the community. The crafting of a new district that wends from portions of Oneida and 11 other upstate counties into the Hudson Valley would likely end that tradition.
Instead of redrafting a new ‘Utica Congressional seat,’ Albany Democratic leaders came up with a ‘Dutchess County Congressional seat.’ Rhinebeck and Tivoli, the homes of Delgado and Molinaro, respectively, are beautiful communities, but are vastly different from Utica, and even from the more rural communities in the Mohawk Valley. The demographics of Dutchess County now include many transplanted former New York City residents, and skew younger, more liberal, and more upscale than in our area. Anyone representing this new 19th District would going to have to learn a lot about the Mohawk Valley, and realize the unique challenges we have here to expand our economy, and make our community safer.
The new 21st Congressional District seemed to be a better fit than the new 19th. Stefanik already has visited Rome Lab. Having the same representative for Rome and Watertown’s federal agencies and facilities might be beneficial. And the needs of northern Oneida County communities and those of the communities farther north are unarguably very similar. Even more interesting was the news recently that current 22nd District Congresswoman Claudia Tenney planned to run in the new 23rd District—a large swath of heavily Republican southern and western New York that includes some of the counties now in NY-22. With the possibility of redrawn districts, this plan might not come to fruition.
Losing a unified voice for Utica and Rome in the State Senate would have been another loss under the redistricting plan, but one our communities experienced a number of years ago before most of Oneida County was consolidated into a single district. Senator May has shown an interest in the Oneida County communities she represents, and anyone seeking to challenge her needs to demonstrate that they are committed to solve the problems of everyone in the new 55th District.
At press time, there are many uncertainties. The hope is that new districts can be crafted that don’t disenfranchise residents of the Utica area, who long have had one of their own as their Congressional representative. And it is hoped that any of the new districts avoid splitting Utica and Rome—two communities a mere 20 minute drive down State Route 49 that have far more commonalities than differences.
The inability of a supposedly bipartisan commission the voters approved to redraw the state’s political boundaries is a disgrace—and is another example of the inability of Republicans and Democrats to put aside highly partisan districts, and enact changes that are in the best interests of their constituents. The longer the redistricting drama remains murky, the more likely new candidates and the voters are to participate in the political process. How are people even able to begin researching the candidates in their region when it’s uncertain who those candidates may be? In the end, entrenched incumbents are more likely to wait out the process, holding fundraisers and getting press coverage, while some political newcomers, facing difficulties in raising money and getting support not knowing what district they’ll represent may opt out of the process—thus giving voters fewer choices.
The next few weeks will be crucial determining what happens to this set of redistricting maps, but it’s the potential is strong that the 2022 elections in New York State will be chaotic and fraught with uncertainty—and that is not ideal for our state’s democratic process.