F.A.Q.: What could keep Andrew Cuomo from fixing redistricting?

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Andrew Cuomo at a tax-cap signing. (http://www.flickr.com/photos/governorandrewcuomo/)
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A conversation with Times Union political reporter Jimmy Vielkind about whether Andrew Cuomo will follow through on his promise to change the way the New York's legislative and congressional districts get made.

Josh Benson: Is it me, or is it starting to look like Andrew Cuomo is really going to do this redistricting-reform thing?

Jimmy Vielkind: Well, we'll see. He's huffing and puffing and blowing from his bully pulpit but it's pretty much in the hands of the legislature. If Cuomo does veto the lines, as he's once again threatening to do, then someone can sue, claiming lawmakers are at an impasse, and a federal judge should step in. So we'll see.

It's still early, but when we saw LATFOR, the legislative body that's charged with redistricting, start to move forward this week, I sure took it as a sign that the legislature doesn't have much interest in creating an independent, nonpartisan panel to (theoretically) draw independent, non-partisan lines. Which in the judgment of goo-goos, they don't. And, after a little back-and-forth with the governor, he agreed they can't make independent lines in their current form.

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Josh: To me that's the significant thing, though—that Cuomo not only said that he will veto lines that aren't independent or nonpartisan, but followed up (in response to your nudging, I believe) by saying that any lines LATFOR produces will, by definition, fail that independence test. It doesn't seem to leave him much wiggle room.

So unless he's going to reverse himself and cave, the only remaining outcomes I can see are: the legislature goes through this whole bad old process and then Cuomo vetoes the lines until the courts get involved, or the legislators come to the table to try to make a deal with him on an independent redistricting bill they can live with.

And isn't the case that a veto-triggered court-master situation would be the worst possible outcome for the Senate Republicans, given the uncertainty it would introduce, and the fact that they stand to lose so much from even a relatively minor change in the way their districts are configured?

Jimmy: Not quite. Because the court lines are never so cut and dry.

Did you know that there have been court-appointed masters used in the last two redistrictings, in 1992 and 2002?

Josh: I did!

Jimmy: I was talking through this with someone a bit older than us, who reminded me that in 2002, they could never reach agreement over how to draw the congressional lines. But faced with a judicial proposal, legislators were quickly able to come together over something that was a bit more palatable and better than what a judge proposed. In 1992, the judge's plan actually looked pretty good, so they used that.

So what we should be very cognizant of in Cuomo's statement is that he can execute it, and be tough and strident on this issue, as good-government groups demand and as he has promised, and still, when the deadline really starts to loom and there's an, ahem, rapid re-drafting of LATFOR's original proposal, come to see the light.

Read his comments carefully. He's careful to reiterate his support for fair lines. That's in addition to favoring a better commission, and bills that create them. So we may get lines Cuomo finds acceptable and comes to bless, or begrudgingly swallow, without legislators actually vanquishing their control anytime soon.

Josh: Well, OK. So, from your post:

“I will veto lines that are not drawn by an independent commission that are partisan,” Cuomo said after a symbolic signing of tax cap legislation — his fourth — at the home of Chris and Tina Maroney in suburban Syracuse.

He at first declined to characterize LATFOR, but asked if he thought it could produce non-partisan lines, he said: “No, I don’t. It’s not non-partisan.”

I think it's that last part that will be very hard for him to back away from, however begrudgingly.

Jimmy: OK.

Josh: If the legislature comes up with the lines, and Cuomo approves them, he will have endorsed a redistricting scenario that by his definition is "not non-partisan." That's a clear-cut fail.

Jimmy: But if LATFOR bases lines off of a nonpartisan judge, does that allow wiggle room?

Josh: It would allow Cuomo to wiggle out of his commitment on a technicality. He will have failed to change the process, and he will look like a promise-breaker and a weakling. 

Jimmy: Isn't that essentially what happened in 1992? 

Josh: OK, so. 1992. I am definitely not in a position to mess with the person who is older than us who actually remembers the redistricting process of 20 years ago. But there are some significant political differences between then and now.

This time, not only do we have a Governor Cuomo who has committed to actually reforming the process, and who keeps doubling down on that promise, but we have a situation in which is the precariousness of the Republicans' situation means that one party (the less powerful one) has way more of a stake in keeping the old system than the other party does. The Senate Republicans were far more secure in 1992 and 2002 than they are now, and far stronger politically.

Jimmy: But look at the principal agitator yesterday: Assemblyman Jack McEneny, D-Albany. His Assembly Democrats, arguably, ARE in a more secure position in 2012 than they were in 1992. They don't want to give this up either. Remember the disputes on the ethics bill? It's about protecting legislative prerogative and privilege and frankly, protecting it from outside interference from a governor, prosecutor, goo-goo or some panel of aged statistics professors.

Josh: Right. That's what it is for assemblymembers like him.

I'm not saying many of the legislators are going to be delighted to surrender their prerogative, particularly those legislators who have been around a while. And despite the presence of a number of (mostly younger) Democrats in the legislature who actually do favor reform, we know most of the Democratic incumbents could live without it, and that senior congressional Democrats (like Chuck Schumer, and also Joe Crowley, who would very much like his party to be able to oversee the controlled demolition of the Anthony Weiner/David Weprin district before the next general election) want things to stay just as they are.

But clearly no one has as much at stake here as Dean Skelos and his 32 members.

Jimmy: Yes, it is perceived as life-and-death for Senate Republicans, and I think rightly.

As it is they hold 32 of 62 seats—the barest possible majority. No matter what, the lines are going to have to be tweaked in time for the next election to reflect population shifts toward the city and its suburbs, which won't help them.

And personally I think an even bigger hurdle for the Senate G.O.P. this year is going to be national trends.

If Obama is able to rebound, and draw out significant numbers of youth and minority voters, as he did in 2008, they can draw whatever lines they want, but they'll still have tough fights in lots of places including the Martins district, Grisanti district and Golden district. So, watch the lines, but also watch Obama's popularity, especially when we see who his Republican opponent and whether Cuomo is veep, and pigs sprout wings.

If, on top of all this, you take away from the Republicans the advantages that come with discretion over the district lines—like, say, their ability to pack more people into districts in Democratic parts of the states than in Republican ones—it will mean very bad things for them in the next election.

Josh: I think that's exactly right.

Jimmy: So we know what they want.

But then you have to think about what Cuomo might want. He just did really well in the close of this session with two opposing foils: liberal Assembly Democrats and more conservative Senate Republicans.

The Republicans, like 'em, love 'em, or hate 'em, know how to make the Senate trains run kinda-sorta-as-close-as-anybody-ever-could on time. Cuomo doesn't want to deal with a coup. Or an amigo faction. That will muck up the Cuomo agenda! And again, having bicameral bipartisanship makes it easy to govern as the Solomonic Centrist, which, it seems, is what he's going for, and what he's banking will be popular should he run for, oh, some other office in a year that starts with 20 and ends with 16.

We talked earlier this year about what was in it for Senate Republicans at the end of session. I've thought about it more and more, and the answer I keep coming to is "avoiding nuclear war."

Can you imagine what their chances of maintaining the majority would be if Cuomo were to tour the state, throwing all 77 percent of his approval ratings against them? Or if he were to use his chops with the media to denounce the Senate G.O.P.? They'd be meat. Char-broiled and well done.

Instead, where are we? Cuomo goes into Republican Senator John DeFrancisco's district and, the breath before he's threatening the veto, leads a crowd in applause for him! Think about that! He stands with Bill Magnarelli and lauds the legislature—Republicans and Democrats, and there were more Republican legislators at that event than Democrats—for having "put the politics aside." The last time the governor came to Magnarelli's district, it was Eliot Spitzer, and Spitzer came to denounce him.

I don't think this should be lost on anyone. It certainly isn't lost on legislators, as Nick Confessore pointed out.

Josh: But doesn't that work both ways, the fact that Cuomo is in a position to have his way with these legislators? They're in a very delicate spot, and the governor apparently has all the leverage. 

So one choice he has, I guess, is to try somehow to satisfy the good-government groups and Eleanor Randolph by living up to the letter of his promise to hold out for lines that weren't technically produced by the legislature, but really to let the Republicans off the hook by allowing lines that give them a chance of keeping the majority, so that maybe they can make the trains run on time for him for as long as they can hang on. (Although, gay marriage.)

Or, alternately, Cuomo can become known nationally as the guy who actually fixed redistricting, simply by refusing to approve lines that fail to meet the standard that he laid out before he was governor and reaffirmed as recently as yesterday.

Which of these scenarios is more likely?

Jimmy: Who knows.