‘Shove it’: Senate Dems grapple with a redistricting plan they can’t do anything about
Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a redistricting deal that his fellow Democrats in the minority of the State Senate have been criticizing as "unfair," "unconstitutional" and the "worst" in the state's history.
But what led them to walk out of the Senate chambers last night, ostensibly, was a Republican move to change the agreed-upon time allowed to debate the bill from four hours to two.
Until the walkout, the debate had been substantive, if escalatingly hostile.
The plan was defended for nearly two hours by Republican Michael Nozzolio, a white-haired, neatly composed lawyer who is, as Jimmy Vielkind described him, "built like he played football at a nerd college."
Astoria-based Democrat Michael Gianaris, a Harvard-trained lawyer, dismissed Nozzolio's argument that the redistricting plan—which is nakedly partisan, to profit the Senate Republicans as well as the majority Democrats in the Assembly—was amended to reflect public input gathered from the 23 public hearings around the state held by the legislature's redistricting task force.
Gianaris said, among other things, that black New Yorkers are disenfranchised in the plan, pointing to the fact that on the new map, the nine Senate districts with the highest black populations have, in total, the same number of residents as the ten disitricts with the highest populations of white residents.
"Have you no shame?" he said.
Gianiaris ended his remarks on the floor by referring to the final set of maps, which Cuomo said had shown "progress" toward fairness from the legislature's initial draft.
"As far as I'm concerned," he said, "you can take the second plan and put it together with the first plan and shove it."
"This is a sham about democracy," said Democratic minority leader John Sampson, before leading the walkout.
Outside the chambers, Sampson (who was in charge of the Senate Democrats during their brief time in the majority, and made no effort during that time to create an independent redistricting process) and a handful of his Democratic colleagues tried putting the focus on Republicans who cut short the debate on the bill.
"Why can't we have time to look at these bills?" Sampson said, surrounded by a gaggle of reporters. "Why is it so important to pass these bills in the dead of night? ... This is not democracy at all."
"This is what people actually lived and died for, pre-civil rights; to give people the opportunity to vote, to give people the opportunity to elect their elected officials," said Sampson.
I asked Sampson whether he wasn't also upset with Cuomo, without whose assent it would not have been possible for the Republicans to protect themselves with gerrymandered district lines that will be in place for the next decade.
"It's not about the governor," Sampson said. "It's about the way we conduct ourselves in that chamber."
Later, Gianaris, who is generally a Cuomo ally, came closer to addressing his conference's feelings about the governor's abandonment of an explicit, repeated promise to veto the legislature's gerrymandered lines, thereby turning the process over to the federal courts.
He said he'd be "disappointed" if Cuomo signed the bill into law, which he had reportedly agreed to do in exchange for agreements with the legislature on matters having nothing to do with redistricting, including the creation of a new, somewhat less expensive pension "tier" for public workers.
"This is not a better product and this is not a better process," Gianaris said.
The Republicans currently control 32 seats in the Senate's 62-seat chamber. The Democrats expect to take the majority at some point, given their 5-3 registration advantage in the state and the prospect of winning close races in years like this one, when a Democrat at the top of the ticket (Barack Obama) will almost certainly get a lot more votes than the Republican. But the gerrymandered map will make it much more difficult by facilitating population discrepancies between districts, and apportioning Democratic voter-blocs to dilute their strength by splitting them into multiple districts or cramming more of them into districts the Republicans have no chance of winning anyway.
Earlier in the day, a number of Senate Democrats complained that they weren't getting the support they'd like from their Democratic colleagues in the Assembly majority, or from the governor's office.
To be sure, on the Assembly side earlier in the day, there was no great feeling of injustice or crisis among most of the Democrats.
"I'm going to vote 'yes,'" said Assemblywoman Carmen Arroyo. "The lines favor me. The Senate has the opportunity to go the Department of Justice."
State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr. was there, too, in the near-empty chamber.
"I just want to see what the great Black and Hispanic Caucus is doing," he explained.
"Which is nothing," said Jose Rivera, a Democratic Assemblyman whose district overlaps with Diaz's.
Democratic State Senator Bill Perkins was standing there, not saying much. I asked him what he'd like to see Cuomo do if the redistricting legislation reached his desk.
"He said he would veto it," Perkins replied.
"So, what does that mean?" asked Rivera.
"The difficultly of the Senate lines is that they're drawn by Republicans," Arroyo said. "If we had a majority of Democrats there, it would be a different story."
I asked if that meant Democrats would gerrymander in favor of their own party, or that Democrats would follow a fairer process.
"What do you know about politics?" she replied. "If Democrats draw lines, they're going to draw lines in favor of whom?"
With that, Perkins and Diaz left the chamber.
Outside the Senate chamber that afternoon, State Senator Kevin Parker stood with his arms folded across his chest, leaning against a handrail.
He said if Cuomo signed the legislation, a number of his colleagues would be "disappointed and angry, but as Democrats, we're used to being disappointed and angry with each other."
Parker, still hopeful at the time, said that if Cuomo vetoed the legislation, "I think he's in better shape because I think people will see the integrity in his words and they will take him at his word. And not just what he said to me, it's what he said publicly to everybody."
State Senator Martin Dilan of Brooklyn, who was a Democratic voice of protest on the redistricting task force that came up with the gerrymandered lines, was walking through the Capitol with a cadre of aides surrounding him. He'd already called the commission's work "a farce" and a waste of time.
He told me he was hoping Cuomo would see that too.
"I don't see how he can see this a fair plan," Dilan told me, standing outside the Republican Senate Leader's office. "They weren't fair in January and they're not fair today."
"If the governor does sign this bill, I feel he would be reneging on his word," said Dilan.
But Dilan, a close ally of the Brooklyn Democratic establishment, is a soft-spoken tactician, and a realist. Passing the redistricting bill, he said, would work to Cuomo's advantage.
Cuomo "would still have the majorities on his side," Dilan said. "That's who he's working and negotiating with right now."
CORRECTION: As noted below in the comments, Dilan was misidentified in the original version of this article as Erik Dilan, who is his son.