With the stage set for a redistricting compromise, reformers offer a pointed reminder of Cuomo’s promise

Dick Dadey (at microphone) and Ed Koch. (Reid Pillifant)
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With good-government groups suddenly split over what constitutes redistricting reform, Citizens Union and New York Uprising held a press conference this morning reiterating their call for an independent commission that would remove the ability of state legislative leaders to customize districts for partisan advantage.

"We believe that they need to remove the self-interest conflict that they hold in drawing these lines, and turn it over to an independent panel," said Citizens Union executive director Dick Dadey. "Because the power of who controls the pen at the end of this process really draws the lines. It is not the criteria so much as who, in fact, draws those lines who controls how those maps will look in 2012."

The reference to "criteria" was a rebuke to the good-government group Common Cause, usually an ally when it comes to redistricting reform.

Andrew Cuomo made reform of the decennial process a goal of his governorship and he proposed legislation that would create an independent body to draw up new lines. His proposal met with stiff resistance in the legislature, particularly from State Senate Republicans, who stand to lose seats, and their narrow majority, if the ability to shape districts is taken away from them. But Cuomo has vowed to veto lines created by a process that is not independent of the legislature, possibly trigering court intervention.

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By federal law, the new lines for congressional and state legislative districts would have to be in place in time for next year's elections, and would therefore have to be settled upon by the state long before then.

Until now, good-government groups have effectively been united behind Cuomo's proposal. But in an editorial this morning, Common Cause executive director Susan Lerner (along with former attorney general candidate Sean Coffey) wrote that, "at this late hour," the focus should no longer be on the formation of a brand new nonpartisan panel of the sort envisioned by the governor, but instead on establishing criteria by which the existing legislature-controlled panel—the New York State Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment, or LATFOR—could create suitable lines.

"We want to take issue with that, and say that time still remains for the legislature to pass legislation creating an independent commission," Dadey said. "Because that's what New Yorkers expect and demand."

Dadey's proposal this morning, which he said would result in "less than ideal reform in 2012," provides for an indepenent commission selected by legislators—but not including legislators—as long as they first pass a constitutional amendment for non-partisan redistricting after the next census, in 2021.

The difference of opinion between the two groups would seem to provide Cuomo some cover, should he ultimately decide to arrive at some sort of compromise with the Senate Republicans and LATFOR that falls short of the procedural overhaul he promised.

Dadey and his allies, who would regard such a compromise as a failure, are doing their best to remind the public that Cuomo, in his last public comments,  said that he would veto partisan lines, and that LATFOR, as a partisan body, is constitutionally incapable of coming up with lines that aren't partisan.

"Fortunately, the governor is with us," said former mayor Ed Koch, who as the founder of New York Uprising has been an early and outspoken advocate of ethics and redistricting reform in Albany. "And the governor made it very clear that he will veto any legislation that doesn't provide for an independent commission."

And just to be sure, Koch piled on the praise.

"You know, he's an extraordinary governor—young, and extremely popular," he said. "And as he has said on different occasions, 'I don't need anything, I'm only going to do what's right.' And he has the strength and the support to do what's right. And what's right here is vetoing what the legislature is doing, and then it will go to the courts."

Dadey said he had been in regular touch with the governor's office over the last few months, and had spoken to his office as recently as this morning.

Asked about his conversations with Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, Dadey said the threat of the governor's veto should help spur Senate Republicans—for whom nonpartisan redistricting provides an existential dilemma—to accede to an independent commission.

"I think the Senate Republicans are taking very seriously the veto threat by Governor Cuomo, that they are finally believing that he means what he says on this, and that's not something he's going to negotiate away either now or later," Dadey said. "I think what gets them to the table, and what gets them to discuss this, is the realization that Governor Cuomo is serious about vetoing the lines drawn by LATFOR. The Senate Republicans cannot afford to have the lines thrown to a court, where they have no role or control. The argument is that they ought to come to the table as part of this reform proposal, where they do have a role."

Before Koch and Dadey left to testify before LATFOR's hearing across the street from City Hall, Koch said he fully expected that the testimony would be in vain, but that he intended shame the legislators for not supporting non-partisan reform.

"I think the governor can stop them," Koch said. "And I know he will certainly try."