A federal judge unexpectedly tightened the redistricting vice on the deadlocked New York state Legislature this week, pushing the body to come up with a compromise or cede the redraw to an apolitical observer.
The release of a court-drawn draft map by U.S. Magistrate Judge Roanne Mann late Monday surprised the Albany political establishment — she wasn’t expected to release a map until next week — and added immense pressure to the Democratic-held Assembly and Republican-held state Senate to draw new Congressional lines.
“I think this will light a fire under the Legislature,” said a national Republican deeply familiar with New York redistricting.
“There is now a great incentive for the state Legislature to do a Congressional map,” a New York City Democratic consultant said, noting that while the draft map helped some Members, it made life a lot more difficult for others. “This is a great motivator.”
But given a number of approaching deadlines, something very similar to this map could well end up being used in November. Strategists of both parties said they didn’t expect these lines to be the final ones, but that they would likely serve as a guide and a strong influence for the Legislature looking to resolve its deadlock.
“It’s hard to imagine that legislative leaders want to relinquish the power of redistricting. They find the court intrusion cranky-making,” said a longtime Congressional aide to a New York Democratic Member. “Does this give them a road map that they can use and perhaps even get some heat off of them?” the aide asked. “Yes.”
But even if the two chambers can come to an agreement on redistricting soon — and there were indications Tuesday that a deal was near — there are huge hurdles before a final map from Albany could become enforceable law.
One is that the courts are moving exceedingly quickly on cementing their own plan. While courts generally prefer to have legislatures draw lines — a marquee Supreme Court decision called judicial drawing of lines an “unwelcome obligation” — the fact that the candidate petitioning period begins this month may influence the speed of a decision. By Monday, Mann will release her final plan to a federal three-judge panel, which will hold a final hearing on the map March 15. That panel could tweak and/or finalize 2012 lines anytime thereafter.
Attorneys familiar with the case said that if the Legislature can come up with a compromise plan, the courts might give them time to pass a map. But the truth is, there isn’t much time to give.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has threatened to veto any plan not drawn by an independent commission, though insiders think he can be brought around. If he signs a plan into law, under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the state’s Congressional map must be approved by either the Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Under the act, the DOJ has 60 days to complete preclearance. Because candidate petitioning is slated to begin March 20, with a Congressional primary June 26, both the petitioning period and the primary would almost certainly have to be moved by the Legislature.
One determinant of how different the final map is from the one released today: how happy Members are with the lines.
The map released by Mann essentially eliminated the districts of retiring Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D) and special election victor Rep. Bob Turner (R) and mortally endangered some incumbents such as Turner, Rep. Kathy Hochul (D) and, to a lesser extent, Rep. Chris Gibson (R). The provisional lines left other Members, such as Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel and Rep. Tom Reed (R), with slightly less favorable districts, while shoring up Members such as Reps. Brian Higgins (D) and Michael Grimm (R).
The map appeared substantially less gerrymandered than the competing plans released earlier by the two chambers of the state Legislature.
For Members who were thrown under the bus in one or both of those plans, such as Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R), the court map looked pretty good.
“We were very pleased with the lines that came out [Monday],” she told Roll Call. “It’s not that they gave us any kind of advantage,” Buerkle said, noting the Democratic lean of the district, “but that they moved the district back to the way it” is rather than the gerrymander of the plans released earlier.
“I think these maps are fair. They’re from an independent source, and they best represent the interests of the people of New York,” she said.
The fact that seats like Buerkle’s remain competitive under these lines left national Republicans feeling cautiously optimistic about how the Empire State will play out for them.
“For Republicans, it could have been a hell of a lot worse,” said a national Republican deeply familiar with New York redistricting. “It’s a map we can absolutely live with.”
But, with so much yet to be determined in both the judicial and legislative processes, that could change in a New York minute.
“Anybody who says this is the end of the game,” the aide to the New York Democratic Member said, “that would be premature.”