Andrew Cuomo’s promise to fix redistricting isn’t what it once was

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Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders. (Governor Andrew Cuomo, via flickr)
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Andrew Cuomo has a test coming up, and he's setting himself up for a deferral. It won't matter much to him, politically.

That's because the test has to do with redistricting reform, which is actually a substantive and important part of Fixing Albany (which everyone claims to want to do), but which is actually too esoteric and process-based for most voters to care a great deal about.

As part of his open-ended campaign to reform state government, Cuomo proposed to create an independent entity to conduct the redrawing of legislative and congressional lines, a process that happens every 10 years and which has historically been controlled by the unbelievably conflicted majority parties in each house of the state legislature.

But to create that independent entity means passing a law, something that State Senate Republicans, clinging to a narrow, gerrymander-aided majority in that chamber, have resisted as a matter of life and death.

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At various times since he took office, Cuomo has promised to veto whatever lines the legislature might come up with if such a law were not passed. Those lines, after all, would be the result of a process that is precisely the opposite of independent and nonpartisan, and which is designed to support the prerogatives of incumbent legislators rather than New York's ill-served voters.

Last month, the legislative task force seemed to set Cuomo up perfectly for a veto, by releasing a proposed set of legislative lines so crazy-looking and blatantly partisan that all the governor could muster in response was the equivalent of an indignant sputter. (The lines, needless to say, would give a massive advantage to the Republicans in the State Senate and to the majority Democrats in the Assembly.)

The legislative task force will soon release a revised set of lines, which will presumably be somewhat less outrageous, but which will also fall far short of the nonpartisan, independent standard set by the governor.

Either way, substantial court involvement of some sort in the process is likely: Last week, a federal judge responded to the legislature's slow pace and unpromising initial offering by calling for the appointment of a "special master" to oversee the redistricting process, and ensure that acceptable lines are in place in time for the legislative primaries. (The legislature today responded by saying, in essence, that they've got everything perfectly under control.)

But how much leeway the judge or court-appointed "master" will have in reshaping the legislature's work is largely up to the governor. If Cuomo vetoes the lines proposed by the legislative task force, the master will essentially be receiving a nonbinding proposal for the new lines, and will be in a position to amend that draft heavily or even to disregard it entirely, in favor of lines deemed to be fairer.

If on the other hand Cuomo signs the legislature's lines into law, the master will more or less be bound to use those lines as a basis for the final product, with his or her mission limited to ensuring that the lines are in compliance with the letter of the law. (It is not illegal for the districts to be partisan, or nonsensical.)

What anyone can see now is that the governor is wobbling on the veto promise. Gone is the unequivocal promise to veto any lines drawn by the legislature, replaced by a hedgey intention to "wait and see" what happens with the lines, and an uncharacteristic complaint that he lacks the political wherewithal to compel the legislature to do the right thing:

“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," Jimmy Vielkind quoted him saying in late January. "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."

And then, late last week, there was this: an interview with the Democrat and Chronicle editorial board in which the governor appeared to lay out conditions under which he would agree not to veto this year's lines as long as the legislature promised to change the process in time for the next redistricting, ten years from now.

“I think that is the optimum you could have,” Cuomo said, of a potential compromise.

So why would Cuomo go back on his promise? Who knows. Perhaps he wishes to rack up the world's biggest chit from the Senate Republicans, who would quite literally owe the continued existence of their majority to Cuomo; or maybe, as the slightly darker version of this theory goes, Cuomo wants his party to stay in the minority in the Senate, because actually he would prefer to deal with a disciplined, perpetually indebted Republican majority there than a dysfunctional, chaos-making Democratic one.

It is quite possible that the governor is merely doing the politically smart thing and leaving his options open. Maybe after all the posturing, the legislature won't go far enough in crafting something Cuomo can present to the public as an enlightened compromise, and maybe then the governor will simply lose patience and issue a veto after all, putting the whole matter at the mercy of the courts.
That would be very bad news for the incumbent line-drawers, and very good news, in the short-term, for the minority parties in either house, and for would-be challengers to any majority-party incumbents in the next decade, to say nothing of voters who would like their elected officials to be more accountable to the public.

But in softening his public position, Cuomo is unmistakably laying the groundwork for the possibility of a cop-out that he can sell as something else. Perhaps he will sign the lines with a show of great reluctance, while also announcing he has secured a promise from the legislature for a constitutional amendment to ensure an independent redistricting process in a decade.

The Times editorial board would be mad, sure. But on this issue, for whatever reason, Cuomo may be past caring.