Members of a coalition of New York City groups representing communities of color say they may join Republicans suing to block newly redrawn congressional maps pushed through by Democratic state lawmakers and signed into law by Gov. Kathy Hochul.
The advocates say lawmakers unfairly divided Black, Latino and Asian populations and spread them among several districts, reducing voters’ chances to elect representatives from those groups, particularly in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and other areas with high concentrations of non-white voters.
“This is textbook vote dilution,” said Jerry Vattamala, an attorney and director of the Democracy Program at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which along with Latino Justice and the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College comprise the Unity Map Coalition, an umbrella group that advocates for communities of color.
“Not always and not in all cases do the interests of the Democratic Party fully align with the interests of communities of color,” said Lurie Daniel-Favors, executive director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College.
Not always and not in all cases do the interests of the Democratic Party fully align with the interests of communities of color
For months, community groups had urged lawmakers to consider a so-called “unity map” that kept racially distinct communities intact, potentially increasing their political power.
The maps ultimately approved by Albany were the work of Democratic state legislators, who assumed control of state and congressional redistricting after the state’s Independent Redistricting Commission – comprised of five Democrat-aligned commissioners and five Republican-aligned members – failed to reach consensus.
With Democrats controlling both chambers of the Legislature as well as the governor’s office, adoption of the maps was all but ensured.
The IRC was created after voters approved an amendment to the state constitution in 2014. The panel was intended as an answer to historic gerrymandering driven by both the Democrats or Republicans, depending on who was in power in Albany.
Among its tasks, according to its founding charge, was creating districts that avoided the “denial or abridgment of racial or language minority voting rights,” were not made “for the purpose of favoring or disfavoring incumbents,” and which were “as compact in form as practicable.”
On Wednesday, Democrats in Albany approved new district maps that critics say violate the spirit of the IRC. Hochul signed the legislation into law the following day.
A lawsuit filed Thursday by a group of Republicans claims that “the Democratic Party politicians who control the New York Legislature and Governor’s office brazenly enacted a congressional map that is undeniably politically gerrymandered in their party’s favor.”
The complaint quoted Dave Wasserman, an analyst with the Cook Political Report, who told the New York Times that Democrats “can gain three seats and eliminate four Republican seats” in “an effective gerrymander.”
The advocates for communities of color have other objections.
Vattamala pointed to the area of Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park in Queens, which has a strong South Asian and Indo-Caribbean population. It was previously carved into seven state Assembly districts, depriving the community of South Asian political representation.
The Unity Map Coalition pushed for the neighborhood to be contained in one Assembly district; under the newly drawn lines, Vattamala said, it is spread across three Assembly districts.
“They’re still in a terrible situation,” he said.
Vattamala said “there’s definitely a possibility” that racial justice organizations would join with Republicans in opposing the Democratic redistricting efforts, a point that was echoed by others in the Unity Map Coalition.
Democrats defended the new maps.
“We have very strict rules here in New York that we operate under when these lines are drawn,” Queens state Senator Michael Gianaris, a Democrat who oversaw the redistricting plan, said on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show on Wednesday. “Among them is: the lines are not drawn for the purpose of benefiting a party or a particular individual. We believe we have complied with those rules.”
Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, said the new maps would benefit communities of color “in some ways” while undermining them in others.
“In particular, for voters in fast-growing Latino and Asian communities, who were hoping that new maps would give them a bigger, more meaningful seat at the table, there is a lot of disappointment in these maps,” Li said.
"[T]he lines are not drawn for the purpose of benefiting a party or a particular individual. We believe we have complied with those rules.”
As per the new maps, Congressional District 7 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, would strengthen the white population’s electoral hand at the expense of Latinos, said Fulvia Vargas De Leon of Latino Justice.
“They are just going to be an insignificant voting bloc,” she said.
Vattamala said that historically, district lines had ensured that Asian New Yorkers were deprived of political representation. That began to improve, he said, once redistricting allowed for a congressional district with much of Flushing intact.
“Once we had that, a plurality Asian district, several months later, Grace Meng was elected (in 2012) as the first Asian American elected to Congress from New York state.”