By Sarina Trangle
Queens is the poster borough for redistricting reform, at least if you let one good government group tell it.
Citizens Union, a non-partisan government watchdog, released a report last week supporting the upcoming referendum that would alter who draws state and federal legislative district lines by using Queens as a case study.
The group argued Queens’ growing Asian-American and Latino ranks are under-represented in the borough’s state legislative delegation, while incumbent and partisan interests have overshadowed demographic data’s case for districts offering these minorities a plurality and shot at electing more of their own.
Citizens Union said the referendum would take redistricting directly out of lawmakers’ hands. It contended this would mitigate minimizing minorities’ stake in the process.
Queens’ 25-member state legislative delegation includes 15 white lawmakers, three Latinos and one Asian-American, despite those three demographic groups each accounting for about a quarter of the borough’s population, according to the report.
“Incumbency is a powerful consideration that often serves to block the path to new populations seeking to run for political office,” said Citizen Union’s Executive Director Dick Dady. “District lines are not always drawn to fairly reflect the shifting demographics.”
If voters approved the referendum, lawmakers, lobbyists and political figures would be barred from serving on a new 10-person commission charged with drafting districts after each Census. Eight of its members would be appointed by legislative leaders, and they would then select two colleagues. The legislature would ultimately vote on the commission’s maps.
Chamber leaders currently select six lawmakers to draft districts. The task force is responsible for ensuring districts have a similar number of residents and are contiguous. But good government groups say incumbent interests’ have ruled redistricting, with Democrats — who control the Assembly — playing an outsize role in determining the lower chamber’s lines, and the GOP — which dominates the Senate — having a heavy hand in the upper house’s boundaries.
Citizens Union said the referendum would ban partisan interests from seeping into the process.
All of Queens’ Assembly members supported the proposal in 2013.
And three of the borough’s seven state senators backed it, including State Sens. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), Joseph Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) and Malcolm Smith (D-Jamaica) backed it.
Rachael Fauss, Citizen Union’s director of public policy, said Avella’s seat could have a better shot of going to an Asian-American if it included all of Bayside, Oakland Gardens and other neighborhoods bordering the Long Island Expressway. She theorized those areas were split between him and Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing) to concede one district — Stavisky’s — to Asian-Americans but keep a second without such a plurality.
Avella said he was comfortable with his district’s boundaries. Though he supports the referendum, Avella said leveling the playing field would require further reform. He then seized the opportunity to rip the mainline Democrats, who recruited former City Comptroller John Liu to challenge him in a primary.
“Even if you create these districts, unless the machine doesn’t put up candidates or the system doesn’t change, we’re not going to change who wins,” said Avella, an Independent Democratic Conference member. “The best example is Toby Stavisky… She doesn’t represent the majority of the population.”
Stavisky defended her record, noting she has spend many Sundays registering voters in Korean churches and has won Asian-Americans’ votes by fighting for their interests.
“There’s only a population for one Asian American,” she said, noting that ethnic minorities are not the only under-represented group in Albany.“I happen to be the only woman in the state Senate from Queens.”
Fauss said Assemblymen Michael Simanowitz (D-Flushing) and Edward Braunstein’s (D-Bayside) districts could have swapped territory to create a majority Asian-American seat.
Neither returned requests for comment.
Similarly, she described how Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan’s (D-Sunnyside) and state Sen. Michael Gianaris’ (D-Astoria) territory could have been adjusted to have Latino pluralities.
Nolan did not respond to requests for comment.
And Gianaris’ railed against the last redistricting process as a GOP-led attack that initially cut his home out of the western Queens seat.
He and Stavisky lambasted the referendum, saying other states have managed to keep legislators completely isolated from those drawing district lines. They noted that a judge struck the word “independent” from the description of the proposed commission slated to appear on ballots.
Gianaris said he believed the measure also favored the GOP by requiring the Senate to pass lines with a simple majority when Republicans controlled it, but mandating a super-majority when Democrats were in charge.
Reach reporter Sarina Trangle at 718-260-4546 or by e-mail at email@example.com.