Asian, Hispanic and African-American groups count on a Council redistricting that bears no resemblance to Albany’s

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James Hong. (Dan Rosenblum)
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Last week, Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature reached a hard-fought agreement on redistricting state and federal lines in New York State. Now the politics start all over again, this time with the once-a-decade redrawing of the City Council lines.

That was the message this morning in a small press conference on the steps of City Hall, as a coalition of leaders asked Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Council Speaker Christine Quinn to accommodate growing Asian-American, Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods in the city.

Elizabeth OuYang, president of the New York chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans, said it would be easy to find Asian members among more than one million New Yorkers, but that wasn’t the point.

“If you look for apples, you find apples,” she said. “If you look for oranges, you find oranges. We are not interested in token representation, but meaningful, effective representation on this commission."

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As with the Assembly, Senate and U.S. House maps, City Council districts need to be reconfigured every decade to match population changes reflected in the Census. Following the city charter, this spring the Council will choose eight members (five of them Democrats and three Republicans) of a redistricting commission, then Bloomberg will pick seven members. The 15-member commission will then map out the city’s 51 Council districts. Each district will have roughly 160,000 people, up around 10,000 from the current districts.

The first drafts and public comments will likely come out over the fall and have to be hammered out and approved by spring 2013 in time for council elections in November.

Unlike the state and congressional lines in Albany, which Cuomo could have vetoed, the city commission isn’t directly accountable to the Council or the mayor: just nine votes from the commission would approve the maps. 

Lucia Gomez-Jimenez, executive director of Hispanic advocacy group La Fuente, wanted the city to avoid the backroom dealings that characterized the state hearings, which she called “a sham.”

“I think this is a pivotal moment after we’ve seen the wheeling and the dealing on the state legislative level,” said Gomez-Jimenez. “And I think this is an opportune time to ensure that our communities are not disenfranchised at the very local level of city government in the New York City Council.”

But as the fastest growing population in New York, the city’s Asian-American population is poised for the biggest gains. Originally focused on the state-level redistricting, a number of groups formed Asian-American Community Coalition on Redistricting and Democracy, or ACCORD, to address the concerns. Now looking at city council lines, members of ACCORD said that along with Flushing, already a majority-Asian district, Elmhurst and Sunset Park could potentially produce "Asian" districts.
James Hong, a civic participation coordinator for the MinKwon Center for Community Action, said ACCORD met with the mayor’s staff about representation on the commission, though they hadn’t asked for recommendations. They did suggest two candidates to the Council: June Jee, a former liaison to the Asian community at Verizon and member of many boards serving the city’s Asian community, and Bright Limm, board president for Korean Americans for Political Advancement.

Limm said afterward that someone from Quinn’s office had called to ask him a half-dozen follow-up questions but he, too, wasn’t sure what the outcome was.

“I think the danger of token representation is that the public may be misled into thinking that the community’s interest are heard and represented on the commission, but sometimes that’s not the case,” Limm said.

Council spokeswoman Zoe Tobin wasn’t able to offer any more information on the plans.

“We are in the process of making determinations,” she said in an email. “The process is laid out in the Charter -- no sooner than March 5th and no later than May 15th.”

Hong ended the press conference by previewing the upcoming battle.

“Just the other day…a reporter asked me ‘You know, is this almost over? There has been so much going on and I am confused. What is going on?’” said Hong. “I said well, it’s almost over, but actually we still need to take this one more step. New York State has gone through a lot, but New York City, for us, it’s just beginning at the city level.”