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Delayed Map Creates Heartburn in New York

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel’s home state of New York still has not finalized its Congressional map for this year’s elections.

The last big redistricting question mark in the country sits right in Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel’s backyard.

But despite his involvement in the process, a map is still unlikely to be enacted before the last possible minute. And that’s giving New Yorkers from Albany to the Big Apple agita.

Power players in New York state remain deadlocked over how new Congressional lines that eliminate two districts will be crafted. Republicans, who control the state Senate, and Democrats, who control the state Assembly, have been unable to hash out an agreement — or even release a draft map.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has threatened to veto any map not drawn by an independent redistricting commission, adding an extra layer of uncertainty to the process.

The clock is ticking. A federal judge last week set the candidate petitioning process to begin March 20. A map must be completed by that date. The primary is scheduled for June 26.

Key players’ self-interest is overriding their desire to complete a Congressional map.

The consensus among both parties’ politicos is that the state Senate, just barely controlled by the GOP, will make any deal on the new map, even one that will be a boon to Democrats, if it means saving their majority in Albany.

“They will do anything necessary to save their districts and their lines in the Senate,” one upstate New York Republican strategist said. “They’ll throw the Congressional Members under the bus if it means protecting themselves.”

A New York City Democratic operative used a different metaphor.

“The GOP in the state Legislature would gladly sacrifice every House seat if it meant being able to hold on to their Senate majority,” the source said. “Forget about not making room in the lifeboat; they’re willing to leave empty seats if it means they can get away from the sinking ship.”

The Democratic Assembly is working with Israel to come up with a map that’s good for the federal delegation, but the body is limited by the other principals in Albany. Democrats hope the new map will shore up their most vulnerable Members: Reps. Tim Bishop, Bill Owens and Kathy Hochul.

Perhaps the most powerful player in the fight is Cuomo, widely believed to be eyeing a White House run in 2016.

“He’s not above making a deal, but it has to be orchestrated in a way that doesn’t get in the way of his ambitions,” the upstate Republican strategist said. But the source added that it was unclear whether the Senate Republicans were capable of crafting a bargain with the governor that safeguarded their majority and his desire for higher office.

Democrats echoed that sentiment, noting that any deal would have to be concocted adroitly enough to leave Cuomo looking like he hadn’t walked back his veto pledge too much. They expect any map he signs to look less gerrymandered than the current lines, allowing him to claim victory.

Polls have found the majority of New Yorkers support an independent redistricting commission. Cuomo will be up for re-election in 2014.

The delay and the opaqueness of the process in the Empire State has had a ripple effect throughout New York’s political classes. The endless unknowns have left candidates, especially challengers, facing the unpleasant situation of not having a certain district in which to run and not being able to raise money for that theoretical effort. And that’s had a downstream effect.

“On a consultant level, it’s killing people because none of the candidates are raising the amount of money they normally would raise, especially if you’re a challenger, because the smart money doesn’t want to give any money unless they see the districts,” one longtime Empire State GOP operative said.

Still, some races are already set. The contours of the rematches between Bishop and businessman Randy Altschuler (R) on Long Island and Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R) and former Rep. Dan Maffei (D) upstate are unlikely to change much with new lines.

New Yorkers involved with politics are a tough, hardy bunch, but the longer the process drags on, the more stress they have been put under.

“We are getting into extraordinarily late and messy, so there’s the heartburn factor,” one New York state Hill staffer said.

Israel is probably not immune from that.

He faces a special kind of dilemma: bolstering Democrats chances of picking up seats this cycle — the districts of GOP Reps. Michael Grimm, Nan Hayworth and Buerkle are the top targets — while safeguarding as many of the 20 Democrats in the delegation running for re-election as possible. Strategists believe it’s also to his advantage to push the New York state government to come to a solution sooner rather than later: Delay is to incumbents’ advantage and could hamper Democrats. And while a Democratic state Assembly and governor could push through a map more favorable to the party, allowing the line-drawing to be completed by a court-appointed special master would be a risk.

“There is a growing concern that a lot of this will be decided in court,” New York city Democratic consultant Basil Smikle said.

Israel wasn’t available to comment, but a DCCC spokesman said the committee’s “analysis is that sensible maps will strengthen Democratic incumbents and allow for multiple pickup opportunities for Democrats across the state.”

As for Israel’s own Long Island-based district, there’s no indication that he’s looking to shore it up at the expense of his colleagues.

Steve Israel has not gone out of his way to say, ‘OK, the first priority here is to give me some impregnable district,’” one Long Island Democratic operative said. “I think he feels comfortable that he can win a district with a similar composition to the one he represents today.”

The conventional wisdom in New York remains that one Democratic district and one Republican district will be eliminated in the redraw. But those closest to the process say very few people actually know what’s going on.

“The one thing that present company over there [in Albany] is good at is keeping their cards close to their vest,” said a Democratic operative familiar with Albany.

However it ends, many observers see voters as the biggest losers in this epic redistricting delay.

“It’s total dysfunction,” the longtime state GOP operative said. “Personally, I don’t think it’s very good for democracy.”

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