Friday, March 11, 2011

REDISTRICTING: Panel Discussion Tries to Determine What Is Reform?

L to R: Jerry Goldfeder, Wayne Barrett, Alex Camarda, and Henry Stern. Off camera: Gersh Kuntzman.Photo: Brooklyn Beat

It was a rainy Thursday night but the meeting room at the Good Shepherd Church in Bay Ridge was packed with residents of Brooklyn and Staten Island to hear a panel of journalists and political experts discuss redistricting reform in NYS. The panel included Alex Camarda, Director of Public Policy and Advocacy at Citizens Union; Prof. Jerry Goldfeder, an expert on election law, who teaches at Fordham Law School and serves as Chairman of the Election Law and Government Affairs Committee of the General Practice Section of the New York State Bar Association, and is special counsel to the eminent Stroock and Co. law firm; Wayne Barrett, journalist with the Nation Institute and until recently investigative reporter (and senior editor) with the Village Voice for more than 40 years; and Henry Stern, Executive Director of NY Civic, former City Councilmember and Commissioner, who has served in Republican and Democratic administrations in NYC since the early 1960s.

The event was moderated by Brooklyn Paper editor Gersh Kuntzman who kicked things off with an informative and amusing briefing on redistricting and gerrymandering.

Every decade, New York State has the opportunity to redraw district lines following the release of the U.S. Census in order to equalize the population of districts and comply with Federal requirements. Traditionally, however, the redistricting is controlled by the party in power in Albany, resulting in gerrymandering, or drawing district lines to achieve partisan political gain for legislators. Gersh provided examples of some more extreme forms of gerrymandering, such as the “Bullwinkle” district.

Given the push, especially in Albany, for restoring (or creating) good government, in 2011, there appears to be an opportunity-- and the political will-- to reform the redistricting process in New York State. However, as the panel discussion unfolded last night, many questions were raised – at least in this attendee’s mind – as to what exactly a redistricting reform that is non-partisan, equitable, and reflecting of the best interests of the citizenry, might look like and what might be its long-term effects.

Governor Cuomo has proposed legislation to establish a commission to study redistricting that will be fairly represented by both parties, which fits in with his campaign promise to reform NYS government. The NYS GOP has spoken of some form of constitutional change.

Henry Stern observed there are only two political parties, “those who are in power and want to keep it, and those who are out of power and want to regain it.” Wayne Barrett noted that the current system of politics in the state allows those in power to retain it more easily by not requiring or encouraging primaries. Therefore, the evolution of a permanent government. Camarda, Stern and Barrett joined, although from different perspectives, to call for non-partisan, equitable redistricting but it was Jerry Goldfeder, dyed-in-the wool Democrat, special counsel to renowned law firm Stroock and Co.’s Government Relations practice, and advisor to then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and current AG Eric Schneiderman’s election campaign – who effectively shook up the pot and rolled the dice 1by questioning whether “objective” and “non-partisan” redistricting was even possible.

As he pointedly noted, “I have never met an objective voter.” Since the net result is the loss of a seat for one party or another, and the loss of a single seat could have an enormous impact on the majority or minority status, any intentions of making an equitable split, one-for-me, one-for-you, or whatever, could effectively undo an electorally-decided majority. Therefore, why should a seat be voluntarily surrendered. Democrats have their beliefs and should fight for them, just as the GOP have theirs and they are not hesitant to fight for them.

Stern,  who would periodically pop in to the discussion and present his very cogent and persuasive discourse, returned to a redistricting argument based on the concern that political gerrymandering could potentially disenfranchise racial and ethnic groups. Goldfeder and Barrett argued that the discussion should be kept as a purely political one, and there was some teasing, in a very sophisticated and indirect way, that seemed to suggest it was ironic that Stern should bring up that theme. (Apparently, given the lawsuits that occurred during his tenure at the Parks Department, this could be viewed as a curious argument to make.)

Camarda supported the reform concept, as did many in the audience, but, like them, without presenting ideas for a clear alternative to what should replace the current tendency to gerrymander. Barrett, as a believer in good government and reform, while initially challenging Goldfeder’s strongly partisan-take on redistricting, might have been skeptical about the ability – or will – of legislators to come up with a non-partisan solution.

However, to some in the audience, the Governor’s proposal of a commission to study redistricting seemed like a right-minded and sensible approach to opening a more informed discussion on this hot topic. While, perhaps everything doesn’t have to be changed if it is not ultimately for the better, at the very least, everything should be subject to scrutiny and transparency as the state struggles for reform and an end to corruption and gridlock in the state capital.

Overall, it was a lively and informative discussion, sponsored by the Bay Ridge Democrats.
--Tony Napoli, Deep in the Heart of Brooklyn

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