New York’s State of Mind: BAM! BANG! KRUNCH! KAPOW!
NEW YORK — It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In reliably blue New York State, where more than 53% of registered voters identify as Democrats, a newly drawn district map was supposed to serve as a bulwark against Republicans taking control of Congress in January.
Instead, a gamble by Democratic leaders who controlled the redistricting process appears to have blown up in their faces.
A map approved earlier this year by the state Legislature, where Democrats control both houses, would have given their party a clear advantage in 22 of 26 districts.
But a new, court-mandated map only gives the Democrats 15 solid seats — down from a present 19 — with five seats safely in the Republican fold and a half-dozen deemed toss-ups by Cooks Political Report and others.
This is a state where close to 60% of voters supported President Joe Biden in 2020.
Now, incumbent House members and political novices alike in the Empire State are embroiled in a war of words over how to proceed in the face of what one prominent New York politician has called “an extinction-level event” for the party.
And the intraparty combat has gotten so bad that it’s almost reminiscent of the old “Batman” TV show, where every punch and kick was accompanied by a “CRRAACK!” “OOOFF!” or “SPLOOSH!”
The kerfuffle began last month when New York’s highest court, the state Court of Appeals, invalidated the congressional district map approved by the state legislature, saying its lines were drawn for an “impermissible partisan purpose” and that lawmakers had failed to follow proper procedures in adopting it.
The map gave Democrats the chance to gain at least three seats in the upcoming election and had Republicans potentially losing as many as four contests in newly drawn competitive districts.
The Court of Appeals also invalidated a district map state lawmakers had wanted to use for state legislative races.
But in both cases the court left it up to Steuben County Court Judge Patrick McAllister, who had earlier presided over the matter, to come up with a solution ahead of the state’s bifurcated primaries. (The primaries for all state assembly and statewide races, namely for governor and lieutenant govenor are June 28; the primaries for congressional seats and the state senate are Aug. 23.)
McAllister tapped Jonathan Cervas, a redistricting expert based at Carnegie Mellon University, to serve as the court-appointed special master in the case, ordering him to complete all preliminary maps by May 16.
In an email to The Well News, Cervas said, “I can not comment on the maps given that I am an agent of the court.”
But the immediate impact of his work is clear. His map unwinds the partisanship of the former map, but replaces portions of it with a handful of districts that will be much more difficult for Democrats to win.
And the most controversial aspect, Cervas set up the potential for several powerful Democratic incumbents to run against each other — the poster child for this being a newly drawn district for a portion of New York City that would pit Rep. Jerrold Nadler and Rep. Carolyn Maloney against each other.
Both lawmakers have been members of Congress for close to 30 years, have strong, longtime constituencies and chair powerful House committees; in Nadler’s case the House Judiciary Committee and in Maloney’s case, the Committee on Oversight and Reform.
In a statement provided to The Well News by her office, Maloney said, “The special master has released new draft maps. I am proud to announce that I will be running to continue to represent the 12th Congressional District.
“A majority of the communities in the newly redrawn NY-12 are ones I have represented for years and to which have deep ties,” she said. “I am proud of the rigorous campaign my team and I have run so far, collecting 13,000 signatures during petitioning, and earning endorsements from my colleagues in local government, unions, and democratic clubs.
“I have worked hard for New York City and NY-12 like building the only subway line built since I have been in Congress, not just in New York City, not just in New York State, but in the entire country — the Second Avenue subway, securing $10 billion in federal dollars for additional infrastructure projects in my district,” the lawmaker continued.
“I responded quickly to the COVID-19 crisis by working with my colleagues to secure $100 billion for our city’s response along with pop up vaccination clinics. I am a proven progressive who gets things done with a record of accomplishment,” Maloney said, adding, “I have been a consistent champion on women’s issues, fighting for a woman’s right to choose, the ERA and women’s health. In the wake of the outrageous draft from SCOTUS, I will fight harder than ever to protect a woman’s right to choose.”
She closed by saying, “I have consistently been ranked as one of the most effective members of Congress by independent good governance groups. I look forward to speaking with voters on the campaign trail!”
The Well News also reached out to Nadler’s office on Thursday but did not receive a response.
On Monday Nadler released a statement in which he said he believes Cervas’s handiwork violated the state constitution.
“However, provided that they become permanent, I very much look forward to running in and representing the people of the newly created 12th District of New York,” he said.
Later, when asked by CNN how he felt about running against Maloney, Nadler called the situation “unfortunate.”
“But I’m going to run and I’m going to win,” he said, adding, “You do what you have to do.”
The biggest controversy to emerge from the map involves Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
As soon as the new map was unveiled, Maloney, who currently represents New York’s 18th Congressional District, announced he will be running in the new 17th Congressional District.
“While the process to draw these maps without the legislature is against the will of voters, if the newly-announced maps are finalized, I will run in New York’s 17th Congressional District. NY-17 includes my home and many of the Hudson Valley communities I currently represent,” he said.
This didn’t sit well with a number of Democrats, who saw Maloney’s move, and the speed of it, as an attempt to block the re-election bid of first-term Rep. Mondaire Jones, who already represents the majority of the new district’s population.
Instead, should he choose to run, Jones would be forced into a primary with incumbent Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a fellow progressive, in the 16th Congressional District.
Jones blasted Malony on Monday, telling Politico his colleague “did not even give me a heads-up before he went on Twitter to make that announcement.”
“I think that tells you everything you need to know about Sean Patrick Maloney,” he added.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, released his own statement on the situation via Twitter, accusing the court of “viciously” targeting Black representation in New York by placing four current Black members of Congress into the same district.
“This tactic would make Jim Crow blush,” he continued. “The draft map is unacceptable, unconscionable and unconstitutional.”
On Tuesday, Jeffries returned to Twitter to say, “The [New York State] Constitution requires that the core of existing congressional districts be maintained. So why was the historic Black community of Bedford Stuyvesant broken into pieces in the proposed map?”
“It’s wrong and unconstitutional,” he added.
Jeffries is among a handful of incumbents who no longer reside in the districts they represent under the new map.
Others include Reps. Paul Tonko, Grace Meng, and Nydia Velázquez.
Though the Constitution does not require representatives to live in the districts they serve, the change could complicate re-election bids and invite new, unanticipated challengers into their respective races.
Two upstate Republicans, Reps. Claudia Tenney and Chris Jacobs, are in a similar position as their Democratic colleagues, having seen significant changes made to their districts in central and western New York.
The Well News has reached out to both for comment.
There is a chance the district lines may be revised anew, but time is fleeting. Judge McAllister has set a Friday deadline for approving the congressional lines and a separate proposal for State Senate districts.
What this all means for the state’s upcoming primaries is anyone’s guess right now.
In an email to The Well News, Jennifer Wilson, deputy director of public information for the New York State Board of Elections, said it’s “unclear” whether the new districts will cause anything approaching a stampede of prospective candidates to new districts.
“The period to file petitions on the new districts doesn’t start until June 8,” she said.
And will the primary now go off as planned?
“Also unclear,” Wilson said. “From our perspective we are moving ahead as if the primary is happening.”