Reapportionment Could Cut Delegation Size

Posted June 9, 2008 at 6:29pm

First in a three-part series

It’s a time of great political uncertainty in New York, with the just-abandoned presidential campaign of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D), the dramatic scandal that abruptly ended the political career of former Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) earlier this year, the shaky start of his successor, now-Gov. David Paterson (D), four Congressional retirements this cycle, a likely changing of the guard in the state Senate, and looming term limits in New York City.

[IMGCAP(1)]Politics in New York is a numbers game, though it’s hard to tell which numbers are most important.

People who play lottery numbers would have a field day with the possibilities: Is two the hottest number? That’s the number of Congressional seats New York is likely to lose in the next round of reapportionment, bringing the number to 27 from its current level of 29 (hard to believe in the 1960s, New York had 41 House seats, more than any other state in the nation).

Two is also significant because that’s the number of seats Democrats need to win this November to take control of the state Senate for the first time in 46 years. Most political observers in the state — both Democrats and Republicans — say it’s more a question of when, not if, the state Senate is going to fall to the Democrats. That’s important not just because it will give Democrats control of all aspects of state government for the first time in decades, but because it will also give them full control of the redistricting process following the 2010 Census — and with it, an opportunity to put Empire State Republicans even further into oblivion than they are now.

A Democratic majority in the state Senate could also change the party’s farm team for Congressional races. Long-suffering Democratic Senators might be more inclined to stick around Albany — and less likely to run for Congress — if they take over the majority.

But by the same token, many Republican state Senators are older — so the Senate may not be the traditional breeding ground for would-be Members of Congress that it ought to be.

“It’s not like there’s a lot of young people in the Senate,” said one national GOP consultant who is familiar with New York.

The GOP’s slippage is evident all across the state, including on the Congressional level. Following the last round of redistricting in 2002, the map was drawn to give Democrats 18 House seats and Republicans 11.

But that fall, one-term Rep. Felix Grucci (R) was upset by Democrat Tim Bishop on Long Island. Two years later, Democrat Brian Higgins won the Buffalo-area seat of retiring Rep. Jack Quinn (R). And in 2006, Democrats picked up three more House seats and came close to winning two more.

This year, Republicans are defending three open Congressional seats — those of retiring Reps. Vito Fossella, Tom Reynolds and Jim Walsh — and each could flip to the Democrats. Rep. Randy Kuhl (R) faces a rematch with retired Navy Cmdr. Eric Massa (D), who came within 2 points of beating him the previous cycle. And while Republicans have a top-tier recruit in wealthy former New York GOP Chairman Sandy Treadwell to take on freshman Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) in a Republican-leaning Upstate district, Gillibrand is favored to win.

So in the Republicans’ nightmare scenario, they wake up on Nov. 5 holding just two of the state’s Congressional seats, compared with 27 for the Democrats. There’s that number two again.

Other important numbers in New York politics are actuarial. Take the number 78 — that’s the age Rep. Charlie Rangel (D), the senior Member of the state’s Congressional delegation and powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, turns on Wednesday.

With the Democrats back in the majority on Capitol Hill, Rangel and other senior Members seem in no hurry to go anywhere. That may frustrate ambitious younger politicians back home, but it increases the state’s clout.

“Since the Democrats retook the majority two years ago, the New York delegation has been fantastically placed in the leadership,” said Jeff Wice, a Democratic strategist in New York who works for the state Senate, among other clients. “We have some terrific chairmanships. Nobody wants to see anybody retire.”

But while there may be political reasons for New Yorkers to hope for greater stability in the state’s Congressional delegation, there is no stopping the march of time. House Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D) is 78. Rep. Edolphus Towns (D) is 73. Rep. Nita Lowey (D) is 70. Kuhl and Rep. Gary Ackerman (D) are 65. Reps. Peter King (R) and Carolyn McCarthy (D) are 64.

Of the four New York Members who are retiring this year, Walsh and Rep. Mike McNulty (D) are 60, Reynolds is 57, and the scandal-scarred Fossella is just 43.

New York City term limits are sure to play havoc with the state’s politics in the next few years. The city’s top three officials — Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum (D) and Comptroller William Thompson (D) — will all be termed out of office in 2009, and there are already spirited races to replace all three.

Bloomberg skipped an Independent presidential run this year, but he is still clearly contemplating his next move. He may choose to challenge the city’s term-limit laws so he can run for a third time in 2009. Or he may choose to reunite with the Republican Party and run for governor in 2010.

Although Bloomberg made much of his recent switch from the GOP to unaffiliated (and remember, he was a Democrat until he first ran for mayor in 2001), one of the best-kept secrets in New York politics is that the billionaire Bloomberg remains one of the top benefactors of the state GOP and state Senate Republicans. His support for New York Republicans is seen as a way of keeping his political options open.

While Gotbaum, a former city parks commissioner, appears headed for political retirement in 2009, Thompson is preparing to run for mayor — and he’ll be a top-tier Democratic contender for City Hall along with Rep. Anthony Weiner (D). Supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis is running for the Republicans, who, improbably in such a Democratic city, have kept control of the mayoralty for 15 years. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly is also thinking about running for mayor, but he’s a political independent, and it isn’t clear which party’s nomination he’d seek.

But one of the most intriguing numbers in New York City politics is 35. That’s the number of City Council members who will be forced into retirement because of term limits next year. The council has just 51 seats, so major change is coming — and many of these outgoing council members will be shopping around for other offices. Congress, for some, could be a viable option.

What with Spitzer’s departure, Paterson’s shaky beginning as he was forced to confess to marital infidelity, and the tenuous state of the state Senate, Albany has no shortage of intrigue as well.

Will Joseph Bruno (R), the state’s long-serving Senate Majority Leader, not only lose his majority but find himself indicted? (He is reportedly under federal investigation for some state contracts he’s parceled out and for his consulting work.)

Will Paterson, the state’s first black governor and the product of a powerful Harlem political machine, stabilize himself politically? As a former state Senate Minority Leader, he’s popular with the Legislature, but that may not prevent state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo from challenging Paterson in the 2010 Democratic primary.

What of Clinton? Despite her devastating loss to Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) in the Democratic presidential nominating fight, friends say she loves serving in the Senate, and despite persistent rumors to the contrary, is unlikely to move on unless a tantalizing opportunity presents itself.

And what of former New York Mayor — and erstwhile presidential contender — Rudy Giuliani (R) and former Gov. George Pataki (R), both of whom may imagine that their political careers aren’t quite over yet?

All of these powerful names will have a bearing on future Congressional races in New York.

Next week: rising political stars on Long Island and in New York City