Andrew Cuomo, the press and the war on partisan redistricting

Andrew Cuomo. ()
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Fresh off reaching an agreement on his first budget, Andrew Cuomo, flanked by legislative leaders, said, with deliberate exaggeration, "I hope this is the template for a new era of cooperation and productivity between the executive and the legislature. I'm hoping that this spirit of love and euphoria that I feel is infectious and grows and continues. Do you feel it, Dean? Do you feel it, Shelly?"

Who would begrudge the governor this moment of celebration? There were lots of things for lots of people to be unhappy about in this budget, but it was an inarguably great political feat for Cuomo to have finished on time, roughly according to the specs he's been laying out all along, and with the tersely smiling accession of the legislature to his Pax Cuomo.

For the governor's next trick, maybe he'll pick a fight that ends differently, without any joint appearance with "Dean" and "Shelly" at which he can force them to laugh about how he just rolled them.

It's because the next grand promise he'll have the opportunity to deliver on—the next insoluble Albany problem he can be the one to solve—is redistricting reform. And the fight over that one is necessarily to the death.

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The way the law works now, the legislature controls the process of drawing electoral lines. And by tradition, the leaders of the majority in each legislative chamber get to draw the lines of their members; the Democrats draw the Assembly lines and the Republicans draw the Senate lines. (The lines of Congressional districts, already the subject this year of some expensive lobbying by House Democrats—who, for their own reasons, aren't in any hurry to reform the process—are a joint effort.) The governor then signs off on the new lines, or vetoes them.

Cuomo has proposed to hand redistricting over to an independent commission in time for next year's redrawing of lines (it happens every ten years); he's also promised to veto any redistricting legislation that does not provide for an independent process.

This would be revolutionary. But whether Cuomo actually follows through with his threat may depend on the amount of attention this issue continues to get over the coming weeks and months. The public, conventional wisdom tells us, doesn't care about "process" issues like this. But reporters and editorial writers do, and Cuomo cares about his press. As one Albany guy put it to me, "The threshhold question here is 'what will Eleanor Randolph let Cuomo get away with?'"

The danger, for anyone interested in putting an end to a process that protects unresponsive officials, is not that Cuomo will fail to get the legislature to go along with him; it is that he will cut a deal, in exchange for something else he wants, that would allow the legislature to keep a firmer hand in the process of drawing electoral lines than the reform proposal currently calls for.

The Senate Republicans, who occupy 32 of the Senate's 62 seats, have now made official their position that the issue should be dealt with by amending the state consitution—a process that wouldn't be completed in time to affect next year's round of redistricting. (Silver, who controls a massive majority in the Assembly that would not be threatened by independent redistricting, supports Cuomo's bill, for now.)

There are now three possible scenarios, as I understand it.

1) The governor, wielding the threat of a veto, and the ability to trigger an outcome that involves the a court-appointed "master" to oversee the process, can compel the Republicans to agree to his reform bill, which would allow the legislature to play a role in selecting the ostensibly independent commission that would actually redraw the lines.

2) The governor and the Senate Republicans (who pledged during last year's campaign, before they were in the majority, to back independent redistricting) can both refuse to yield, indefinitely, in which case the process will likely end up in court, and out of the hands of the legislature.

3) The governor can compromise with the Republicans by giving them enough say over the process that it is not truly independent, maybe in exchange for something else he wants that has nothing to do with redistricting at all.

(State Senator Michael Gianaris, the Queens Democrat who has been one of the most outspoken advocates for independent-redistricting legislation, explained his position as follows: "A court master is certainly more independent that the legislature itself. While I would prefer an independent commission, where the legislature has a voice, a court master is still better than the status quo.")

In an ideal world, stunty legislative floor fights, and press events featuring hastily assembled "coalitions," and the special drama of Ed Koch pounding away at this in an effort to bring about a capstone political achievement, wouldn't be required to get people to pay attention to redistricting reform.

The stakes in this fight are not that complicated, actually.

In part, it's a partisan issue, with partisan consequences: As things stand, a rules change will be good for the Democrats and bad for the Republicans.

The last time lines were drawn, a decade ago, they were designed to protect Republicans (and Republican-friendly Democrats like Carl Kruger, whose odd-shaped district was the result of a deal he struck with former Senate majority leader Joe Bruno). Even if they were allowed to do the same thing this time around, the Republicans would be struggling to hang on, given the Democrats' 5-3 voter-registration advantage over Republicans in the state. Their chances of retaining a majority are further harmed by the recent reversal of the statute that counted prisoners toward the populations of the districts where their residences are (largely downstate, where Democrats live), not where they're in prison (largely upstate, where Republicans live).

If the power over lines is taken out of their hands, and the districts are required to have roughly equal numbers of residents in them—at the moment the populations of each district are permitted to depart from the mean by up to five percent in either direction—the swing back toward Democratic control will be that much more dramatic.

But there is something less horse-racey and more profound that will happen if redistricting is taken out of the hands of legislative leaders, and put into the hands of an ostensibly independent commission, as mandated by Cuomo's bill: Albany will become a less hospitable place for unpresentable hacks. Districts will become more competitive, and, it stands to reason, the people of New York will eventually end up with better representation.

Put aside, for a moment, the Senate Republicans and their particular set of parochial concerns.

Even within the state Democratic party, the most ardent supporters of redistricting reform—the ones who actively push for it behind the scenes and in public, and actually seem to believe it is both a necessary and a good thing—are all distinctly part of a younger generation of lawmakers: Michael Gianaris, Dan Squadron, Liz Krueger, Gustavo Rivera, Adriano Espaillat, and Hakeem Jeffries (who had to overcome a particularly egregious bit of gerrymandering to win his Assembly seat). It is not a coincidence that some of their older Democratic colleagues, used to the security of the present system, have been markedly less enthusiastic.

So, Cuomo. The opponents of redistricting reform will no doubt try to tempt him with some sort of deal: in exchange for watering down the independent process, they'll give him something else instead, something they don't want but that Cuomo wants to deliver. (Passage of a gay marriage bill in the Senate, maybe.)

This is where those aforementioned stunty floor fights, and Ed Koch's petitioning, and the press events—to say nothing of the newspaper editorials—start to matter. The presumption is that all the clamoring is aimed at holdout legislators, to make the officeholders more afraid of public anger than they are of the prospect of a more competitive district.

But the publicity, and the noise, and the sunlight—to use a Cuomo-appropriated term—will come in just as handy when Cuomo is offered his backroom deal. Even if he were tempted by it, a compromise would look to all the world like a petty quid pro quo, if the world is paying attention. 

Maybe the poll-going public does understand what's going on here. If so, Cuomo has a chance to be a hero yet again, getting credit for fixing Albany in a way more fundamental than any amount of efficient budgeting can.

It would be a real fight, engendering very little in the way of love or euphoria. But that beats a smack in the mouth from Eleanor Randolph, doesn't it? 

Correction: An egregious self-editing error put Rivera and Espaillat in the Assembly, not the Senate, in an earlier version of this article. Apologies to both.