Posted by Robert Lynch; February 14, 2022
Elbridge Gerry signed the Declaration of Independence. He was James Madison’s vice president. But all we remember him for today is how he decided who represents whom in the halls of government. And judging from Democrats’ just completed action in the New York State Legislature, Gerry’s legacy lives. It thrives. And admit it. Sadly, it’s a legacy both parties eagerly celebrate.
History books tell us that when Elbridge Gerry was Governor of Massachusetts in the early Nineteenth Century, he signed—some say reluctantly—a state legislative redistricting bill that carved up the Bay State’s Federalist strongholds to politically benefit the rival Democratic-Republicans. The Democrats’ plan worked. Even though Federalists won more votes statewide, we’re told Democratic-Republicans gained seats in the Massachusetts Senate. Elbridge Gerry’s overly-creative drafting pen gave birth to a notorious Boston-area district that took the shape of a salamander. A cartoonist drew it as a winged monster. “Gerry-mander” got its name. That predatory beast would spawn many offspring.
We should learn from history. But most often we do not. It’s because those who lead us do not want us to. I’m a Democrat. I’ll likely vote for my party’s candidates in this fall’s elections. But I don’t like what they—our legislators and Governor Hochul—did to our democracy in Albany this month. They made us hypocrites at best, scoundrels at worst.
Our former State Senator, George Winner, and his legal allies filed suit February 3rd on behalf of 14 Republican-leaning voters who challenge the latest New York Congressional redistricting maps.
In court papers filed to press their case, they wrote, “Democratic Party politicians who control the New York Legislature and Governor’s office brazenly enacted a congressional map that is undeniably politically gerrymandered in their party’s favor.” Admit it, fellow Democrats, the plaintiffs’ words ring true.
The Winner team’s lawsuit came just one day after the New York Senate and Assembly, voting closely along party lines, adopted into law their hastily-redrawn maps. Lawmakers acted after an Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC)— one that voters created in 2014 supposedly to take politics out of the line-drawing process—fell down on its job, deadlocked, and gave up. On the same day that Winner’s Petition reached the court, Governor Hochul signed into law the replacement maps legislative leaders had shadily drawn. Hochul also approved similarly-adopted and likewise-gerrymandered maps for New York’s Senate and Assembly districts. Expect those, too, to face courthouse scrutiny.
The Empire State will send 26 men and women to the House of Representatives this November—one fewer than serve us at present. Experts predict the handiwork of legislative Democrats in recent weeks could leave only four of those Congressional districts—two of them nearby—in Republican hands. Democrats could pick up as many as three new seats.
And to prove that Elbridge Gerry’s legacy lives on, let’s focus on just one of those remaining red-leaning enclaves, one close to home. Look north.
During the past week, I’ve agonized over the newly recast 24th Congressional District map. What does it look like? At last, it hit me. It resembles an unfinished jigsaw puzzle. It stretches from Alexandria Bay on the east to Youngstown on the west. The shores of Lake Ontario delimit its northern border. But its southern boundary strikes a jagged path along haphazard municipal lines. It shows all the signs of a partly-completed puzzle board left for another day. Thanks only to the Middlesex Valley that parallels Canandaigua Lake, the district barely ties its east to its west. It hogs out Democrat-dominant Rochester and its surrounding suburbs. It slices away the blue-leaning I-490 corridor through Victor and on to Canandaigua. Likewise, it sweeps away the City and Town of Geneva, connecting them to the adjacent 22nd District by only the choppy waters of Seneca Lake. To reach Geneva and still remain within district confines, you’d better get a boat.
With meticulous precision and devious intent, Albany’s operatives surgically “packed” into the new 24th District as many Republicans as lawmakers dared corral. In so doing, they excised G.O.P. voters from most neighboring locales, making those other places easier for Democrats to snatch. Cleansing preferred districts of Republicans became map-makers’ principal goal. They narrowed the chances that anyone from the party of Reagan and Trump unfortunate enough to live in the exurbs of Rochester, Syracuse, or even little Ithaca, might hold the raw votes needed to elect somebody they’d actually like.
“Packing” Republicans into the New 24th District may comfort like-minded party loyalists who live there. But from a strategic posture, Republicans lose. And what Albany Democrats inflicted in the 24th’s niches of Medina and Manchester; Clyde and Clarendon; they likewise imposed on Tom Reed’s 23rd District, the new hunting ground for roving Congresswoman Claudia Tenney. It’s just that Reed’s Southern Tier 23rd was pretty “red” to start with. So while the 23d’s gerrymandering may look less grotesque to the naked eye, the Democrats’ strategy promoted the same purpose. In the 23rd, as in the 24th, Democrats toss to Republicans their few, but favored Bantustans, yet plunder everything else. The majority party’s grand plan keeps New York’s G.O.P delegation as tiny as possible.
I grew up in the Ontario County Town of Phelps, just a few miles north of the New 24th District’s jagged southern line. I pity any Joe Biden supporter who lives down Main Street from the Phelps Hotel and who might want to elect a Democrat to Congress. Given what their party brethren did in Albany, my old schoolmates stand next to no chance of electing their favored representative. Their votes become wasted. And quite honestly, strategists in Albany simply don’t care. Their game is about numbers, not feelings.
George Winner’s Petition frames it this way: “Previously, District 24 compactly encompassed the bordering counties of Wayne, Cayuga, and Onondaga, as well as part of Oswego County.” But “Now, this District extends from Lewiston, in Niagara County, and various similarly Republican areas in northeast Erie County, traveling all the way eastward and northward to Jefferson County (all the way to the St. Lawrence County line), while notably avoiding certain portions of Monroe and Ontario counties.”
As the Petition accurately observes, “This District now stretches across four media markets, connecting numerous areas, over more than 250 miles, with little or nothing in common.”
Petitioners duly note that much of what used to be the 24th District has been shunted into the restructured 22nd, the one we in Tompkins County now find ourselves within. We will divorce ourselves from our odd bedfellow conservatives in the Reed-represented Southern Tier 23rd and hook-up with those in more Biden-friendly Syracuse. John Katko’s retiring. No incumbent will run in the 22nd this fall. So unless an Independent like Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh tosses in his hat, or Lansing Republican Mike Sigler’s campaign gains traction, expect the lead drama to occur in the June Primary. It could be a Democrats’ jump ball.
Actually, to the State Legislature’s line-drawing credit, the recast 22nd District makes reasonable sense. And I do not say that only as a Democrat. An oft-mentioned factor when redrawing districts is linking “communities of interest.” And bonded as we’ve been with the Southern Tier these past decades has made us the 23rd’s eccentric odd uncle. We strain to build relationships with places like Angelica, Jamestown, or even Corning-Elmira. Nothing wrong with those places, for sure. But don’t you sense closer ties with Seneca Falls than with Hornell? Isn’t Syracuse (or possibly, second-choice Binghamton) our stronger magnet? So aside from the only-by-a-boat Geneva blunder, I harbor few concerns about the House District we now find ourselves within. It’s just that I cringe when I look at all those other places that were chopped to shreds to give us a nook of newfound comfort.
By the way, the quickest fix to the 22nd’s drafting flaw would be to graft Geneva onto Seneca County by linking it through the Town of Waterloo, and then balancing the numbers by chopping off a town or two somewhere else. There’s a second practical benefit. With their long-held seamless border, Waterloo and Seneca Falls deserve to remain conjoined twins. And there’s yet a third benefit. As it stands now, unless it’s changed, the Seneca Canal splits the Waterloo Village between two House districts. How awkward.
Robert Draper penned an article in The Atlantic a decade ago. I like how he put it. The gerrymandering cartographer’s “objective is to design wombs for his team and tombs for the other guys.” Draper quoted Lynn Westmoreland, a now-former Georgia Congressman, a Republican deeply-invested in line-drawing shenanigans. Westmoreland described redistricting as “the nastiest form of politics that there is.”
He’s right. And Carol Anderson, a leading authority on voter suppression, concurs. “Regardless of whether it’s all white or all one party,” writes Anderson, “the ultimate goal of gerrymandering makes clear that this is no way to run a democracy.”
Sadly though, today’s redistricting runs as much on Elbridge Gerry’s scheming as Madison Avenue would have our nation run on a ubiquitous donut shop. But beyond all else, liberal hypocrisy is what appalls me most. Progressives like Anderson confine their opprobrium to egregious “Down-in-Dixie” or ruby-red Midwest Republican outrages. They too often ignore that we in the party of FDR stray from virtue as well, if only a little less often. Gerrymandering, quite truly, has become an equal opportunity blood sport.
Over and over, we Democrats write, whine and chatter on cable about the misdeeds that appall us in places like Georgia, Wisconsin, or Texas. Yet we turn a blind eye to Democrat-driven mischief in Maryland or in our own beloved Albany. We shouldn’t. Please, party faithful, contain your opportunistic glee. Spin yourselves around, stare into reality’s mirror, and speak your true confession. “I am no better than he!”
Republican Tom O’Mara represents our western tracts of Tompkins County in the New York State Senate. Democrat Michael Gianaris, the State Senate’s Deputy Majority Leader, represents a district in Queens whose shape looks remarkably like Elbridge Gerry’s salamander. On this Groundhog Day, O’Mara and Gianaris squared off on the State Senate floor for a quaintly gentlemanly dual over the Democrats’ hastily-drawn gerrymandered Congressional maps. Their facade of civility only partially concealed an underlying core of visceral, mutual disesteem.
Michael Gianaris is one of those all-too-smart, all-too-smug, mild-mannered progressives whose condescension drips like a strawberry cone on the hot summer’s day. Rising from his desk to debate that afternoon, Gianaris found no need to defend fine points of the maps his party had so cunningly crafted. He knew full well that all the votes he needed rested safe and secure in his pocket. The moment demanded only that Gianaris run out the parliamentarian’s clock along with O’Mara’s rhetorical steam. With an economy of words and a surplus of aplomb, the Senate’s number two in leadership repeatedly brushed off his Republican colleague’s grievances as one would bat at a fly. If you demote politicians to that bottom rung of detestable miscreants, you reserve for Michael Gianaris your choicest cream pie.
Attempting to weather O’Mara’s unceasing onslaught, Gianaris excused away the majority’s rushed, secretive process: “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the way we’re doing it,” he said.
O’Mara’s pointed rejoinder: “Absolutely nothing wrong… There’s nothing wrong with the majority of the Senate and the Assembly getting together unilaterally and drawing these maps, with no outside public input, no public hearings whatsoever, in a rush to ram these through for the expediency of the majority of this House?”
O’Mara wasn’t through. “This is a sad day in New York State’s history that we can’t give the citizens of New York State 72 hours to review and provide input on a bill creating Congressional districts for the next ten years in this state.”
“Senator O’Mara is riled up today,” Gianaris sardonically observed at one point in their exchange. The Big Flats Republican conceded he was, indeed, riled. He said it was for good reason.
What about the Brennan Center’s, critique, O’Mara asked. He quoted the (reliably liberal) Brennan Center for Justice’s attorney as writing, “I think the maps that are proposed in New York for Congress really in a lot of ways are a master class in gerrymandering. They take maps that were very responsive and had a lot of competition, and they take out a number of Republican incumbents very strategically.” Well, asked O’Mara, “How do you respond to that claim from the Brennan Center?”
“That gentleman is mistaken.” Gianaris smugly answered, mumbling through his mask words you could hardly hear.
O’Mara remained on offense. “This is a travesty,” he said. “The public was clear in 2014 when the Independent Redistricting Commission was set up that the public wants politics as much as possible out of the redistricting process. Now the Commission failed to get the reports together, to agree on a common set of maps. That, I will submit, was pre-ordained to fail; set up to fail by the majority in this body and in the State Assembly—that their appointees to the Commission, the Independent Commission, were under no circumstances to agree on a common set of maps.”
The debate ended. Senators cast their votes; 43 to 20, down the predictable divide of partisan loyalty. But in casting his own vote, Gianaris, perhaps realizing his rival had gotten the better of him, wedged in the last word.
“If it was designed to fail, it was designed by them (the Republicans)…. You set up a commission with equal numbers of both parties, you’re going to get deadlock. So if you don’t like what was designed, you shouldn’t have designed it that way. We wouldn’t have done it that way….”
No, of course, Michael Gianaris, you wouldn’t have done it that way. It wouldn’t have furthered your goals. In fact, you and your Democratic allies actually did seek to amend the redistricting process at midpoint. Last year you put before voters a new constitutional amendment that would have restructured the IRC to tip the scales in your own party’s favor. New York’s voters didn’t buy it. They rejected the amendment by more than a quarter-million votes. As you stood so confidently that day and cavalierly disparaged your cross-party rivals, perhaps you should have pondered why New Yorkers turned down your attempted hijack of bipartisan parity.
I wish every New Yorker would watch the Senate’s 30-minute, two-man floor face-off. Draw your own conclusion. Is this just the latest example of politics gone bad? Who’s right, and who’s playing games? But I know most of you won’t watch. And Democrats know it too.
I like fair fights. I like to see evenly-matched districts, those where electoral imbalance arises only from the synergy that occurs when populations settle, humans interact, and partisans persuade one another to form and modify their beliefs. I like it much less when agenda-driven outsiders chop those populations into artificial compartments for nothing more than political gain. The latter is what’s happened with our New York Congressional maps. We should take pride in neither the districts given us nor the leaders who drew their lines.
Closely-drawn districts bring nail-biting victories. They dislodge apathy. They keep democracy healthy. They engage voters. They encourage campaigning, foster debate, and motivate base-driven efforts to advance ideology and to pound the pavement for a voter’s chosen candidate. Evenly-matched districts make each election’s outcome a whole lot less predictable. Elections become an honest fight and not a foregone conclusion.
Yes, I’m a purist. I’m a Good Government cheerleader. Also, perhaps, I’m naïve to the point of self-destruction. But I want to gaze into that political mirror and like what I see. I’d prefer each of my Democratic brothers and sisters would join me. Ours is supposedly a party founded on equality, opportunity, and fair play. We should live our ideals. If we did, we each could sleep a little better at night. We might also wake up this November 9th and find we’ve lost our Congress to the deputies of The Donald. And quite simply, that frames our dilemma.
And yes, Ms. Anderson, “This is no way to run a democracy.” Elbridge Gerry, you did us no favor. You gave us a monster. I wish someone would slay it and not just feed it.