Cuomo, who promised to end gerrymandering, prepares reformers (and Democrats) for a non-victory

Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders. (Governor Andrew Cuomo, via flickr)
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ALBANY—Even as Gov. Andrew Cuomo leveled a threat to veto new legislative district lines that legislators have drawn for themselves, he left himself open to a negotiated solution that would preserve their control over maps that will be in place for the next ten years.

It’s either the best or worst of both worlds for Cuomo, a Democrat who during his 2010 campaign denounced the current process, run by a legislative task force called LATFOR, and vowed to put in place an independent commission to give New Yorkers districts that would suit the needs of voters, not incumbent members of the majority parties in the Assembly and State Senate.

“I’m going to let the process play out,” Cuomo said in a brief question-and-answer session with reporters during a cabinet meeting Thursday. “A lot of people have a lot of ideas. Some of the good-government groups have ideas. Let’s see how it plays out. My point all along has been, I want a better product and a better process. I don’t know where it ends.”

Not once, in 12 minutes of questions, did Cuomo say the word “veto.” This is notable, because Cuomo had previously drawn such a clear line on this issue. In campaign materials he pledged to veto any lines that were unfair, and last summer he told me he would veto “lines that are not drawn by an independent commission that are partisan.”

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LATFOR's lines clearly fail that test.

But Cuomo has always been reluctant to say explicitly that he would veto anything churned up by LATFOR, which is jointly controlled by Democrats who dominate the Assembly and Republicans who are working feverishly to maintain their bare 32-seat majority in the 62-seat Senate.

It is the Senate Republicans, led by Majority Leader Dean Skelos of Long Island and fronted on redistricting matters by upstate lawyer and Finger Lakes-area senator Mike Nozzolio, who treat this process like mother’s milk. New York’s government was structured in the days of Tammany Hall for upstate Republicans to control the Senate, and over the last century, as New York has turned an ever deeper shade of blue, the G.O.P. has fought to hold onto the chamber, which gives it one of the three legs (the other are the Assembly and governor’s office) on which budgets and policy are built.

The Republicans' efforts to game this current round of the once-a-decade redistricting process have not been subtle. The maps the task force released yesterday group Republican voters into districts that, rather than pulling together similar towns or neighborhoods, contort themselves into shapes that, with only a little imagination, look like “well-endowed camels,” among other things.

They’ve divided pockets of Democratic voters (sometimes this amounts to breaking up pockets of racial minorities, as on Long Island) among different districts, diluting their power.

Their defense of the process has been equally blunt: "The new district lines are the result of the most open and transparent reapportionment process in decades," said Nozzolio, the LATFOR chair.

The Republicans briefly lost their Senate majority in the 2008 elections when Barack Obama brought out a surge of young and urban voters, but they rebounded in the Obama-backlash election of 2010, just in time for redistricting, and a chance to build a floodwall against New York's rising Democratic tide.

So Cuomo’s saber-rattling on redistricting was an existential threat to them.

For the governor, the consequences are considerably smaller, notwithstanding whatever opprobrium he'll get from the Times editorial board if he fails to live up to his promise here. The fact that he proposed the independent redistricting process allowed him to put himself on the side of the reformers, which is a valuable thing—a poll by Quinnipiac University found about half of New Yorkers say line-drawing should be completely independent, and another quarter say legislators should have some say, but less than now.

But even as polls show “independent” to be a fantastically useful adjective with voters, they also show most people don’t understand redistricting and, as with most "process" issues, really don’t much care. While it’s critical in determining the balance of power in Albany and, arguably, to improving the quality of New York's elected officials by making incumbents easier to challenge and therefore more accountable to voters, just 20 percent of voters surveyed last June by Siena said changing the process was a top priority.

This makes things difficult for the governor, he explained Monday.

“If you think I should try to go convince the legislators that it is not in their best interest to draw their own lines, uh, maybe you could convince them of that," said Cuomo, who normally prides himself on his ability to compel lawmakers to do things. "I don’t possess those skills. So you’re right: I haven’t spent a lot of time trying to explain to them why this isn’t in their interest,” he said Thursday.

At the same time, Cuomo said, the impenetrable nature of the topic makes it impossible to mobilize people on the stump. This isn’t a meat-and-potatoes personal-finance issue like the property-tax cap. This isn’t a civil-rights fight like same-sex marriage. This is … legislative redistricting.

It poses a similar political challenge to a law forcing legislators to disclose outside income and re-jiggering Albany’s ethics watchdogs. Cuomo was able to ram that piece of legislation through by wielding a giant stick: If lawmakers didn’t agree to permanent change, he threatened to convene a special prosecutorial panel that could rake them over the coals of roasted subpoenas to say all kinds of unsavory things under oath. Eventually, an "understanding" was reached.

The redistricting-veto threat was supposed to function similarly. Except legislators realized they could basically run out the governor’s clock. (Cuomo denies this.) To comply with a new federal law, a judge is considering moving New York’s congressional primary to June, which means would-be candidates would have to start circulating petitions at the end of February.

That leaves no time to set up an independent panel, as outlined in legislation put forward by Cuomo that went nowhere in the State Senate. Good-government groups began to realize this in September, and negotiations over some other solution began in earnest.

Possibly as a signal to legislators that his threat wasn’t so unequivocal, Cuomo in October began to openly worry that a veto would create “chaos” in the courts. 

This idea about chaos was not a mere cop-out, though it may turn out to be that, too: Since the State Constitution leaves redistricting to legislators, a judge might ultimately defer to their ideas, however self-interested and anti-democratic those ideas happen to be. This month, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected district lines drawn by a Texas court because they gave no weight to a (roundly criticized, obviously gerrymandered) plan passed by legislators.

Cuomo stopped publicly talking about redistricting reform and kept negotiating. He did not mention redistricting during his State of the State address (“The silence was deafening,” one Republican senator told me, with a smile) and declined to take a position for or against the current process.

The Senate Republicans continued to prostrate themselves before the extremely popular (he’s still over 70 percent in the polls) governor on other issues, agreeing to renew most of an income-tax surcharge they had vowed to let expire, a backflip that allowed Cuomo to get a pack of progressive groups to stop nipping at his left flank. Senate Republicans even argue they should be returned to power because they’re working so well with the Democratic governor.

So the lines came out, and they were rotten. In their draft electoral landscape, Republicans create a 63rd Senate seat, using some creative legal-mathemagical analysis, and drew it so a specific, wealthy Republican assemblyman could make a run for it. They re-drew the district of their most vulnerable incumbent, Buffalo’s Mark Grisanti, so his fluke election in 2010 might be repeated in 2012 as a non-fluke. They once again broke up clusters of minority voters, and they pitted three pairs of incumbent Democrats against each other, including Michael Gianaris of Queens, who happens to be the head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.

Good-government groups pounced. Bill Mahoney of NYPIRG called LATFOR's product “clearly the most gerrymandered lines in recent New York history.”