Hakeem Jeffries on Cuomo’s redistricting promise, and whether Brooklyn Heights belongs in the 10th

Hakeem Jeffries, at a Brooklyn rally for Occupy Wall Street. (Reid Pillifant)
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With the clock ticking on New York's redistricting deadline, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn thinks that any hope for reforming the process rests on Governor Andrew Cuomo's willingness to hold the line.

"At the end of the day, as long as the governor is willing to adhere to his commitment to veto any lines that are drawn in a way that doesn't project independence and nonpartisanship, then we have a shot to change the way that the redistricting process is done," Jeffries told me on Tuesday evening, as he mingled with 20 or so guests at the Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Art, before a screening of the documentary Gerrymandering.

Jeffries, whose personal story is featured in the film—he was "drawn out" of an Assembly district ten years ago in an effort to frustrate his primary challenge to an incumbent—has made redistricting reform a key component of his political profile, regularly attending screenings like the one on Tuesday night, and acting as the Assembly sponsor of a bill (carried in the State Senate by Michael Gianaris, of Queens) that would establish an independent, nonpartisan commission to redraw the state's lines. The decennial process of creating the lines of legislative and congressional district is currently controlled, through an appointed body called LATFOR, by legislative leaders in Albany. 

Jeffries eventually won the Assembly seat in 2006, after moving into the re-drawn district, and he has assembled a broad coalition of allies for a possible congressional run. The diversity of that support, which includes self-styled reformers as well as consummate insiders, was illustrated by the fact that his appearance at the screening, which was hosted by the good-government group Democracy for New York, came less than two hours after he made a public appearance alongside Brooklyn Democratic chair Vito Lopez.

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The screening included a post-screening question-and-answer session with Common Cause executive director Susan Lerner.

Lerner recently broke with other good-government groups in saying that LATFOR might in fact be able to produce sufficient lines, if they're guided by the right criteria. The other good-government groups, as well as reform advocates like Jeffries and Cuomo, have maintained that LATFOR is by definition incapable of produce an independent and nonpartisan map. Cuomo has promised to veto whatever the task force produces. (Though each new interview—like the one he gave Capitol Pressroom's Susan Arbetter this morning, citing the potential for "chaos" if redistricting goes to the courts—afford new opportunities for parsing that commitment.)

I asked Jeffries whether he thought LATFOR was inherently partisan.

"Well, if you look at the Florida model for instance, where a constitutional amendment was passed last year that sets forth criteria by which the legislature must redraw its lines, that allow for respect for the voting rights of communities of color as well as community of interest standards that keep neighborhoods contiguous and don't break them apart for political reasons, then you can have a LATFOR system that might be more functional than the one that currently exists," he said. "But the governor has indicated he is supportive of a change process. As long as he adheres to that commitment, I'm confident we can get some reform here."

The hopes of redistricting reformers rest with Cuomo's willingness to follow through on his veto threat, Jeffries said, "because it presents the risk for the Senate majority in particular that they will have no involvement in the drawing of the legislative lines."

"The unanswered question, particularly as it relates to the current Senate majority, is: are they willing to give up some measure of autonomy as it relates to how the lines are drawn and allow it to be thrown into the court system?" he said.

Jeffries, who is very publicly considering a congressional challenge to Representative Ed Towns, said he doesn't expect the 10th Congressional District to change much, since the district—along with the rest of Brooklyn—is subject to the constraints of the Voting Rights Act, which prevents dilution of minority votes.

"On top of that constraint, you have the 12th Congressional District to the north and the 11th Congressional District to the south," he said. "It's very difficult to change one Voting Rights district, and almost impossible to substantially change three."

Since he converted an exploratory committee into a proper congressional campaign account, Jeffries has said it might be time for "an injection of new ideas and energy." I asked him to what extent he thought redistricting had protected Towns, a 29-year incumbent, whose performance Jeffries has criticized of late.

"There's been discussion in the past as it relates to what may have taken place in the last redistricting cycle as it related to Congressman Towns and the Brooklyn Heights community that was cut out of the congressional district," he said. "I'm not sure why that happened. But I do think it's a question that somebody should provide an answer to at some point."

The conventional wisdom is that the inclusion of Brooklyn Heights in the 10th District would substantially help Jeffries in a congressional run. Jeffries stopped just short of saying whether he thinks the neighborhood belongs within the district.

"I wasn't around when it was originally put into the 10th Congressional District and I'm not sure why it was cut out," he said. "But I do think that the numbers tell a story as to what may have happened and why."

This morning, Cuomo reiterated his commitment to veto LATFOR's lines, in a radio interview with Capitol Pressroom.

"If there's not an independent process, I will veto the plan," he said. "And then it will go to a court to decide. And that's where we are. And the conversation is ongoing. I'm hopeful the legislature still comes to a reasonable recognition there should be independence in this process."

Cuomo said a veto isn't exactly a "slam dunk" either, given the uncertainty it creates, and the possibility for "chaos." But a follow-up that asked again about whether he'll veto LATFOR's plan got the same response.

"I've said from the beginning I don't believe the legislature should be drawing their own lines," he said. "I say there should be independence in this process, and that's what I've said since Day One."