Citizens Union endorses an easy way out for Cuomo and the legislature on redistricting reform

Dick Dadey (at microphone) and Ed Koch. (Reid Pillifant)
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In a move that helps pave the way for Governor Andrew Cuomo to get out from under his promise to veto legislative lines drawn by legislators, two good-government organizations endorsed a redistricting plan produced by legislative leaders after closed-door negotiations with the governor's aides.

On a conference call with reporters hours after legislation describing new districts and a new redistricting process was posted online, Citizens Union and the New York League of Women Voters said the new plan would bolster transparency and permanently improve the way legislative and congressional lines are drawn in New York.

"Citizens Union's approach to good government isn't just about taking positions, critiquing the actions of government officials and pushing an agenda," said the group's executive director, Dick Dadey. "We want to be both principled yet pragmatic and try and actually achieve the solutions that we set out to address."

"In the end," said Dadey, "talking about it is not good government."

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That's a not-so-subtle shot at other reform advocates and good-government groups who want Cuomo to veto the current lines, as he previously promised to do. Dadey said vetoing the current lines removes Cuomo's leverage to force a permanent change; the other reform advocates say that vetoing the lines would have precisely the opposite effect, taking this year's redistricting out of the hands of partisan legislative leaders and allowing the governor (or one of his successors) to use the tough precedent set this year to compel the legislature to change its ways or suffer another veto.

On the call, Dadey acknowledged the new plan fell substantially short of some objectives. The legislature's bill, if passed, means that the state will be operating with gerrymandered lines for another decade, and the Senate Republicans will have succeeded in adding another seat to that chamber with the primary purpose of padding their narrow majority.

Also, the bill excludes the spouses of legislators from serving on a proposed "bipartisan" redistricting commission that will govern the process in future, but not other people who would seem to be conflicted in that role. A Daily News columnist asked why the provision wasn't broader, to include, for example, family members or people with business ties to legislators.

"This was the negotiated settlement," Dadey said.

Broadening the language about who is ineligible to serve on the commission, Dadey said, "would limit the pool significantly and in ways that was not intended."

"Another thing is, simply because you're the brother of a legislator doesn't mean you're going to agree with him or her on these issues," Dadey said.

Barbara Bartolletti of the New York League of Women Voters said "if anyone made that attempt [to game the commission], I think they would be so severely criticized" that "they would take a great deal of heat from both the good-government groups and from the media, I would hope."

When I noted that such public criticism didn't prevent State Senator John Sampson (a Democrat) from appointing Ravi Batra to the state's new ethics commission, Dadey said, "His selection was most unfortunate," but that the others on that commission were "respectable and commendable."

At one point, I asked Dadey what kind of contact he and others had with Cuomo and legislative leaders on this issue. 

"Citizens Union has had ongoing contact, telephone conversations and meetings with the governor's office, the Assembly Democrats and Senate Republicans on this issue for months," said Dadey. "We have met with each of them separately and at times together, trying to make this happen."

"Sometimes it's on the telephone, sometimes it's through email and other times its through face-to-face meetings," he said.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article stated incorrectly that Ravi Batra was a former law partner of John Sampson.