By Howard Koplowitz
Civic groups, residents and community-based associations from across the borough lashed out Tuesday at the task force that proposed new district lines for state offices during a public hearing on the body’s plan at Borough Hall.
When the lines for state Senate and state Assembly seats were unveiled last week, the drawn districts were widely criticized across the borough and viewed as breaking up communities and gerrymandering the districts to suit elected officials.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo indicated he would veto any redistricting plan that was not drafted by an independent commission.
Every 10 years the districts are redrawn to account for population changes recorded in the census.
The proposed lines, if enacted, would force Sens. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) and Toby Stavisky (D-Whitestone) to run against each other in a primary in northeast Queens and Sens. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) and Jose Peralta (D-Corona) would also face off in western Queens.
Ali Najmi, an attorney and community organizer with SEVA, a group that is active in Richmond Hill and eastern Queens, criticized the task force for breaking up communities in testimony at the hearing.
Najmi said all of Richmond Hill has enough population for one Assembly district and Glen Oaks, New Hyde Park, Floral Park, Bellerose and Queens Village “continue to be gerrymandered by three Assembly districts.”
He said the maps presented by the task force have caused “an unprecedented level of resentment towards the political process.
“All of you should be exiled to New Jersey,” Najmi said.
James Hong, civic participation coordinator for the Minkwon Center for Community Action in Flushing, commended the task force for creating an Asian majority Senate district but said he was discouraged that Flushing was divided between two districts.
“Dilution of the Asian-American vote … has been and continues to be unacceptable,” he said.
Bob Friedrich, founder of the group Eastern Queens United, which he said represents 75,000 residents in eastern Queens, said the group was “appalled” by the maps.
“The proposed legislative district lines tear the fabric of our communities and neighborhoods,” Friedrich told the task force members. “You have treated our civic leaders with contempt — publicly pretending to care about their concerns and then privately ignoring them.”
About a half hour before the public hearing began, Queens leaders, mostly from the Jamaica branch of the NAACP, rallied in front of Borough Hall to protest the task force’s plan.
Leroy Gadsden, head of the Jamaica NAACP, said the task force’s propoal to create an additional Senate seat upstate would violate the civil rights of black downstate voters who are Democratic, because upstate would have an additional elected official, who was likely to be a Republican and white.
“We will not stand by and watch them take us back to the civil rights era of the 1960s,” Gadsden said.
Some African Americans took the argument a step further and claimed the task force was being racist.
The Rev. Charles Norris, a southeast Queens minister, called the task force “five racist white men who are drawing the lines for their own protection.”
“We’re outraged that these white men … split up our vote,” said Democratic District Leader Elmer Blackburne.
Two of the six task force members, including one elected official, are Latino.
Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4573.