BY ANGELA MONTEFINISE
The 2000 census proved that the population of Queens and its immigrant diversity is continuing to grow and a plan submitted by the State legislature this week is suggesting a way for political representation to grow along with that population.
The redistricting plan was submitted by leaders of the State Assembly and State Senate and is a first draft that needs to be voted on by the State’s redistricting task force and then the full State Legislature. It will also need to be approved by both the Justice Department and by Governor George Pataki before it takes effect. It calls for new district lines for both houses of the State Legislature based on population growth in certain areas documented by the Census.
For example, the population of downtown Flushing has grown by nearly 30 percent since 1990 according to the 2000 Census, so the political leaders need to examine whether another representative is needed to take care of the area. If so, district lines need to be redrawn to include a new district.
Released Feb. 14, the plan includes new Senate lines drawn by the Republican majority and new Assembly lines drawn by the Democratic majority. Combined, both proposals add five new district seats to New York City – four in the Assembly and one in the Senate – based on declining population upstate and on Long Island and a 682,000 person increase in the City. A recent influx of immigrants into the five boroughs is what many political insiders think caused the population increase in the City, and what caused new district lines to favor it.
Queens would receive two new Assembly seats under the proposed plan, with one in downtown Flushing and one in Jackson Heights. Flushing has acquired a large Asian population over the past 10 years, while Jackson Heights has become predominantly Hispanic. Political insiders believe that the seats will go to Asian and Hispanic candidates, and so far, civic leaders and politicians who have shown interest in both seats are representative of those populations.
While both the Senate and Assembly redistricting plans have been criticized by various groups, and many changes are expected to be made before final redistricting takes place, many immigrant groups and community leaders in Queens believe that redistricting is necessary, and that the City is ready for a new breed of leaders.
Why New Districts?
Every 10 years, the leaders of the New York State Legislature evaluate Census figures and decide if new district lines should be drawn to insure that the principles of the Federal government’s Voting Rights Act of 1965 are adhered to.
According to the act, every United States citizen must have equal government representation, and district lines must be re-evaluated if that is not the case. For example, if two districts in New York City both have 100 people and one representative, then each of those 200 people are represented equally. If the population of one district increases to 300, but no other representatives are added, then the people in that district have one-third less representation than the people in the district with 100 people.
Assemblyman William Parment, one of the assemblymen chosen to serve on New York’s six-member State Task Force on Demographic Research and Development, said, “It is the State’s responsibility to make sure that districts with increasing populations have increased representation, or else they are getting cheated in government. That is the basic goal of redistricting.”
The Task Force, which was established in a 1978 State law and includes members of the legislature and the community, examines Census figures and holds public hearings to decide how to redraw the lines, and recommends a plan to leaders of the legislature. The legislature then recommends a plan back to the Task Force, which needs to vote on it before the full Legislature, Justice Department and Governor look at it.
The Task Force will vote on the Legislature’s first draft before Feb. 22, and then it will go before the full Legislature at the end of March. If both houses accept it, the plan will go to the Justice Department and the Governor for approval. The Justice Department checks the legality of the new lines, and listens to lawsuits that groups and politicians could file. Both the Justice Department and Governor’s office could not comment on the redistricting proposal, with a Pataki representative stating, “The governor needs to examine it thoroughly before making any public statements.”
State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, leader of the Assembly’s Democratic majority, released his redistricting plan on Feb. 14 to criticism from Upstate New York and Long Island politicians. His plan calls for the creation of four new Assembly seats in the City, including two in Queens. Because the Assembly can have a maximum of 150 members, the four seats had to be taken away from Upstate New York and Long Island, prompting anger from Assembly Republican Leader John Faso of Upstate New York, who called the new lines, “highway robbery.”
He said in a statement, “Under the Democratic plan, 64 Upstate Assembly Districts will have an average population of 128,348 and 21 Long Island Assembly Districts will have an average population of 131,139 while 65 New York City districts will have an average population of 123,204 . . . It is wrong. Wrong morally. Wrong politically. And, ultimately will prove wrong legally.”
Parment responded, “We had to draw the lines based on Federal and State restrictions as well as population. These were all challenges . . . All of the districts are within legal limits for population set by the Supreme Court. Technically, the ideal number of people in an assembly seat is 126,500, and if you do the math, the City should have gotten five seats. It’s based on more than population.”
While Assemblymen outside of the City are upset, inside the City, people are happy with the new seats, especially two in Queens which will probably give Asians and Latinos more political power.
Adrian Joyce, former Community Board 7 chairman and community leader, said, “It’s about time this took place. Downtown Flushing has enough people for its own district, and I think the new seat will be very helpful.”
The first new Queens seat would be called District 22, and would be located in downtown Flushing, where population is 53 percent Asian, according to the Census. The plan would change the boundaries of current Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin’s District 25, which now includes downtown Flushing. McLaughlin’s new district would include the remaining section of his old one, and a small piece of old District 27, which will shrink based on population changes.
McLaughlin said in a statement, “Over the past 20 years, I have had the privilege of representing Flushing, Whitestone, Auburndale, Kew Gardens Hills and many other communities as a member of the Assembly . . . I look forward to continuing my work on behalf of those neighborhoods and also having the opportunity to represent the new communities which have been added to the 25th Assembly District.”
Many community leaders have shown interest in the new Flushing seat, including former City Council candidates Ethel Chen, a retired librarian, and Terrance Park, a community activist. Civic leader Pauline Chu has also expressed interest. While political insiders say Joyce, the only non-Asian discussed so far, has an excellent chance of taking the seat, he told the Tribune, “I’m not sure what I’m doing. I need to examine the situation much further . . . The seat isn’t even official yet. It’s in flux, and until it’s set in stone, I don’t think anyone is dedicating themselves to running.”
The other new Queens seat will be called District 39, and will include a population that is 63 percent Hispanic, according to the Census. The new Jackson Heights district will include the Eastern section of current District 34, and a small part of District 35. The redistricting plan also calls for a change in current District 34’s boundaries, which would gain a piece of current District 30.
So far, five Democratic candidates have expressed interest in running for the seat, including Jackson Heights lawyer and Colombian William Salgado, who said “country-of-origin” may play a factor in the race. Former City Council candidate Luis Rosero, civil liberties lawyer Jose Peralta and civic leader Francisco Moya are also interested in the seat. Julissa Ferreras, who worked on Councilman Hiram Monserrate’s campaign, has also expressed interest.
Until redistricting is official, members of the Democratic County Headquarters, led by lawyer Thomas Manton, will not comment on what candidates they will support.
While the Democrats’ plan in the Assembly has received criticism from Upstate New York and Long Island, the Republicans’ Senate redistricting plan has received criticism from City Democrats. The plan, drafted by Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, adds a City seat and leaves the same number of seats in Queens, but forces two Queens Democratic incumbents into one district, and creates a new Rego Park district that will have no incumbent, giving the Republicans a better chance at winning it.
Senators Toby Stavisky and Dan Hevesi will be forced to run in the same district this November if the Senate redistricting plan is approved. In the meantime, a new seat in Rego Park will open up without an incumbent. Potential candidates for that seat could include Hevesi, who currently represents Forest Hills, and former Councilman John Sabini, who publicly mentioned he is interested in the Rego Park seat.
The combining of two Democratic incumbents happens four other times in the Republican plan.
Hevesi told the Tribune, “There is no need to worry yet. This plan is the definition of preliminary. There are going to be changes to it by the party that drafted it and by the law suits that are inevitable.” He added that in 1990, the same plan was drafted to move his predecessor and Stavisky’s predecessor into one district. “It didn’t happen then, and I’m not worried about it happening now,” Hevesi said.
Black and Latinos across New York City are worried, however, that the redistricting plan does not open any new seats in minority neighborhoods. According to the Majority Coalition of Redistricting Professionals, there are currently 15 Latino and Black members of the State Senate, and that will not change under the proposed redistricting plan, which added a new district instead in the heavily-white section of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
A spokesperson for Senate Deputy Majority Leader Dean Skelos of Nassau County dismissed accusations that the Republicans worked to keep themselves in office and Democratic minorities out of office, and said, “Politics is a factor in redrawing the lines, but it is not the factor. There were important things looked at, like population.”
For more information on redistricting, go to www.latfor.state.ny.us.