At a Brooklyn hearing, the state’s redistricting task force comes under criticism for a lack of diversity

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Letitia James testifies at a LATFOR hearing. (Reid Pillifant)
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At a hearing in Brooklyn Borough Hall this morning, elected officials and other interested parties testified before the state's Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment (LATFOR, for short), arguing for the creation or strengthening of electoral districts in next year's redistricting process for the borough's Orthodox Jews, Asian-Americans, and Latinos and African-Americans, respectively.

Several speakers used the occasion to take issue with the ethnic makeup of the six-person panel, which is constituted of two assemblymembers, two state senators and two non-legislators, selected by the leaders of the State Senate and the Assembly. 

"Unfortunately this body does not reflect the diversity that I celebrate and that I fight for every day," said City Councilwoman Letitia James, who called the omission "inexcusable."
“It is unfortunate that there is not an African-American to serve on this panel. I certainly am available,” she said, to laughter from the crowd.

“The voting rights of people of color—and I will not say the word 'minority' because we are no longer the minority in New York City—must continue to be protected,” said James.

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LATFOR is the legislative entity charged with overseeing the decennial redrawing of state legislative and congressional lines for New York. Federal law mandates that the new lines be in place in time for next year's elections, but New York law allows the governor to veto the lines the legislature comes up with, raising the possibility of a fight with Andrew Cuomo, who has promised to reform the partisan redistricting process, and of a court-imposed resolution.

Based on the results of the most recent census, New York is going to lose two of its congressional seats.

A few minutes before James began her testimony, Anita Burson, a vice president at the Brooklyn chapter of the NAACP, noted the same issue and suggested LATFOR form its own advisory committee, which would include black members. Burson also urged the committee to put more congressional districts in play for African-American and Latino representation. 

Noting that six of New York's 29 districts are currently represented by black or Latino members of Congress—five of them must be preserved as majority-minority districts under the federal Voting Rights Act, including three that are in Brooklyn—Burson said, "We believe that does not match our demographics, which show that we should have at least nine seats. To this end, we should not lose seats when districts are drawn. If anything, we should have lines drawn that allow us to pick up two seats in downtown Brooklyn with opportunities in the Bronx, with Joseph Crowley’s seat. But without a doubt, the three Voting Rights districts should continue in Brooklyn.”

James also said she would prefer to see the redistricting process placed in the hands of an independent, bipartisan commission, along the lines of what Cuomo proposed, rather than to have the lines drawn by LATFOR, which is effectively controlled by Senate and Assembly leadership.

“An independent body would more fairly represent the people of the state and ensure that the inevitable temptation for legislators to conflate the public interest with personal or partisan gain does not take predecent,” she said.

Other representatives, for Orthodox Jewish and Asian-American communities in Southern Brooklyn, testified that their communities should not be broken up between legislative districts, but instead drawn to facilitate the election of representatives from those communities.

Much of the event, one in a series of required public hearings held around the state by LATFOR, focused on where the state will count its prisoner population. A law passed in 2009 mandates that prisoners be counted in their home districts, but it continues to face fierce objections from Senate Republicans, along with legal challenges, that could derail or delay its implementation.  LATFOR only recently announced that it planned to comply with the law.

When Councilwoman James said that “LATFOR refuses to implement state law,” LATFOR's co-chair, Assemblyman John McEneny, a Democrat from Albany County, interrupted her.
"Wrong," he said. "Wrong."

“OK, I stand corrected," James said. "But it is important that you take into consideration the fact that a significant number of prisoners come from several districts in the city of New York and they should be counted where they lived.”

After continuing her remarks, James said: “I just saw a flash in my head a few minutes ago, a reminder of when President Barack Obama spoke before the joint houses and when a representative interrupted him and said, 'You were wrong.'"

"He said, 'You lie,'" said Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, who was seated in the front row.

“It’s about the same,” said James.

After her remarks, McEneny apologized.

“First, I apologize for saying ‘not true,’" he said. "There are a number of people who have come and perpetuated a lie that has been out there for some time that LATFOR was going to ignore the law. Totally untrue. And I was afraid it was a long paragraph going into a description of how that lie was going to be enacted. We will obey the law, as we have neither the inclination nor the ability to ignore the law. And it’s unfortunate that somebody came out with that in July in an effort to discredit LATFOR, because someone else didn’t get to draw the lines.”

“I respect you," said James, citing their work together when she served chief of staff to former assemblyman Al Vann. "I recognize your integrity and your intelligence, and I take you at your word.”

But she also asked him to respond to the criticism of the panel's composition.

“We are one third minority—two people are native Spanish speakers, as you may have noticed," McEneny said, referring to commission members Martin Dilan, a Democratic state senator, and Welquis Lopez, a Republican non-legislative appointee. "And it is unfortunate that we not only have a lack of an African-American, but also we could use a woman. Sometimes when we draw from the elected body, it doesn’t turn out that way.”

“Assemblymember McEneny, I’ve seen you in the past move mountains so I trust that you will do the right thing," James said.