THIS IS REALLY SAD; THIS IS REALLY BAD: JUMPING INTO NEW YORK’S REAPPORTIONMENT/ REDISTRICTING DEBATE (Part two of two).
If you keep fucking with the theories behind democracy, the way elected officials who are shallow, spineless, ruthless, power-hungry and egotistical (democrats and republicans) do, then expect one day to have an “Arab-spring” (political revolt) right here in the good old US of Amnesia. When will we ever learn?
There are those who seem to think an Arab-spring can never happen here, since the traditional institutions which are so embedded in the polity, offer some type of protection and buffer from the frustrations of most voters. They are wrong. They also believe that the implied power(s) of the federal, state and city/local governments (security forces, militias, executive branches of government, plus the legal system, etcetera) will always guarantee stability and compliance. They are wrong again.
The Tea-Party movement is about frustration within the political system. The Occupation-Wall-Street movement extends this frustration to the banking/financial system. Dwindling voter-participation all over the country is also about overall frustration with our so-called democratic system; which is in fact an unfinished democracy.
What happened in Seattle, Washington, a few years ago is about anger and frustration from perceived inequities and power-abuses in the international (and national) economic system of capitalism. The emotional outpouring of support for Senator Barack Obama’s 2008 message of “change” was not only about frustration, anger and fear, but it was also about years and years of pent-up frustration, building-up and leading to an outpouring of hope and idealism.
Over the last century republicans and democrats have essentially stifled true democracy with their self-serving laws and rules relative to ballot access, political participation, party-formation, inclusion, empowerment, respect, policy-formation and true opposition to the powers that be.
One of the ways both parties have done this is via the reapportionment process. Every ten years we go through a redistricting process that locks us into certain patterns of control which essentially maintains a two-party system that operates counter to the spirit of the US constitution. There should be a more pluralistic system of party-participation in the process. Minor parties are strangled at every turn because of unfair and cumbersome rules.
In a recent column I wrote about the current debate raging all over the country. It’s the usual ten-year fight over reapportionment (redistricting). In politics this is where the rubber meets the road so to speak. This is where the color-compositions of the national, state and city/local legislatures are determined. This is where race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, geography, history and other socio-politico-economic-cultural determinants come to a head; in negotiations over how and where lines are carved out for political representation in the legislative bodies of this country.
This process is even more important than say money in politics (Citizen’s Union). This process is the beginning of the end so to speak. If the lines aren’t sensitive and responsive to the myriad demands from groups within the polity, we can have resentments that would build up over time. In a state like New York where the population-diversity is overwhelming, and where individual -compartmentalization is as natural as taking a piss; the fight over representation is even more pronounced. And yet, you wouldn’t know this if you had just landed from Mars. You would never see the importance given that the average person tends to ignore it: and elected officials love that. Why else would they not have a non-partisan commission drawing these lines after 235 years of the NY state legislature?
Many people casually assume that the legislative branch of government (on all three levels) arrives at its racial, ethnic, nationalistic, and religious breakdowns (compositions) automatically. They are very very wrong. A lot has to do with how the lines are drawn. A lot has to do with where lines are drawn. A lot has to do with who lives in these districts.
By now, those who faithfully follow my columns know that I have no great love for the “collective” bunch of black elected officials on all three levels of government (city/local, state and federal levels). They leave a lot to be desired. Take the census count for example.
You would assume that every ten years we could expect a strenuous effort by black electeds all over the nation, to ensure and insure that blacks are counted fully by census officials. After all, it’s about monies. It’s about federal programs and funding for things like education, sports and recreation, housing, seniors, pre and post-natal care, recidivism programs, crime protection programs, etcetera, etcetera. After all it’s about representation in the halls and corridors of power. It’s obvious that blacks have been perpetually undercounted. This usually proves itself when black candidates go on voter-registration drives, and find so many people who have been eliminated from official census tracts eager to engage the political process. You would then expect meaningful and significant lawsuits to stop the census count from being adopted, accepted and legitimized by the authorities; no? After all, once this count is accepted as factual, it becomes a precursor and basis for the implementation of many of government’s fiscal, social, cultural, health, educational, and other policies?
I have gone on record consistently defending the right of ANYONE living in a district to run for public office: seeking to represent said district. It doesn’t matter if that person is the only one of that ilk living there; even if more than 300 thousand (NY Senate seat) others are different. And yet, I am realistic enough to know that the more you pack individuals of one ilk (race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, etc.) into a district, the more likely that someone of that ilk will emerge to represent that district: it’s all about numbers and mathematical possibilities. This is where numerology comes in. There will be a higher possibility of this outcome when compared to other options where specific populations are minimalized.
People don’t only vote for someone because of his or her qualifications and experience(s); they more often than not, vote for one because of race, ethnicity, nationality, religion and such. These factors often come into play long before final voting decisions are made.
About five years ago I wrote a column arguing that the Supreme Court should be increased to reflect the population diversity of this country, and it was slammed by one of the regular writers to this site. I still believe that people will be more favorably predisposed to an institution if they see its composition as having someone (or others) who look similar to them relative to race, ethnicity, nationality, socio-cultural background, religion, and such. It is natural. All across this world of ours, we can see where the genesis of many a racial, nationalistic, religious, tribal and/or ethnic conflict, lie in refusal of one group to power-share or include others in the power equations and decision-making process.
In New York the six member panel authorized to draw up the new district lines are all male. Six of them are white; two are Hispanic. There are no women. There are no blacks, Chinese, Koreans, Indians, or others from the Asian diasporas; how come?
Many of those who attended last week’s public hearing on reapportionment (in Brooklyn) came away with the distinct impression that members on the panel weren’t listening. Group after group, after group, pleaded with the members not to draw lines diluting the potential political strength/power of racial, nationalistic and ethnic minorities in this borough. Panel members never asked for ideas around dealing with this to the satisfaction of those pleading. Maybe the answers were implicit within the pleas.
When you break up populations into four and five pieces, instead of having a seat where the majority grouping can increase its chances of electing one of its own, then you are playing politics with the process. Many groups in Brooklyn accuse the panel of doing just this; like the Russians in Sheepshead Bay and immediate environs; like Caribbean-Americans in Brooklyn-central; like Hispanics in Sunset Park and other places; like Afros in general.
Look, I am fully aware that this isn’t an easy process for mapmakers. I do know however that there should be some preliminary expectations/agreements going in as to what should be the ideal final map; and also what would be the ideal final composition of the legislative bodies when elections are over.
I am yet to find in New York state, more than one or two districts (senate or assembly) where the population was at least 50 per cent white, which has elected a non-white person. I have been told of one or two of such districts in the 235 years history of the state legislature. Byron Brown won the 57th SD in 2001 to become the first Afro to ever attain this feat. I am unable to obtain specific clarification: the history, date and demographic-makeup of other said seats. And yet, there have been many times when minorities make up the majority population within a district, where whites have easily won election and re-election, as representatives (42nd AD/Brooklyn, for example). Marty Markowitz held such a minority-majority seat for about 20 years(20th SD/Brooklyn). Is this all just co-incidental?
Last week, Gary Tilzer publisher of the political blog “True News”, stated that the panel at the Brooklyn hearing was nothing but a group of programmed monkeys. To him they are able, ready and willing to rubber stamp the redistricting aims of Shelley Silver (Democrat/assembly speaker), and Dean Skelos (Republican/ senate majority leader). He calls the whole process a sham. To him the republicans and democrats have refused to reform the legislative branch because of the power-sharing arrangement that the redistricting process maintains. “They will never address the idea of an independent commission to draw up objective lines”, said Tilzer in a phone interview. “It’s detrimental to their aims and objectives: maintaining the status quo”.
The problem is this Gary: the sham will be legitimized as soon as the governor signs the redistricting agreement drawn up by this group. The challenge for progressives and people of good faith is to publicize this process as much as possible in order to bring pressure to bear on the powers that be for eventual lines that are much more transparent than in years past. Here again our electeds fail us; especially those representing communities where minorities make up the majority of the population.
Given that one in four city residents is black (and one in five statewide); I am flabbergasted at the fact that the legislature couldn’t find one black person to place on this panel? It’s about respect. It’s about empowerment and inclusion. It’s about power-sharing. It’s about simple political decency. I have written many times before about all these boards, panels, commissions, and such, which never reflect the diversity of this country, its states, cities and localities: it’s 2012 people. And some whites claim to honestly not understand the seething resentment of many blacks in certain quarters; blacks who have had to routinely deal with racism, discrimination, marginalization, exclusion, inequity and the like: all their lives.
Do you mean to tell me that they couldn’t have found one woman for that six member panel? Don’t women make up around 52 per cent of the population? Even if a little less than that, they are still in the majority all over the country; aren’t they?
If all things were equal, the legislatures all over this country would reflect a composition as close to the natural demographics as possible; but we don’t live in a perfect world. Still, when you have a 535- member Congress where there are no blacks in the Senate; and a House of Representatives with under-representation among Hispanics, Blacks, Native Americans, Chinese-Americans, other Asian ethnics and people of mixed races (compared to their overall percentages in the national demographics); then maybe it is time to draw lines in a way that will enhance the chances of electing (and reflecting) such a population-diversity. I want to believe that such an initiative is embedded in the spirit of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In response to a recent article published on Room Eight New York Politics (www.r8ny.com), Michael Benjamin-the former state assembly member from the South Bronx- intimated that the Voting Rights Act was obsolete. I think Mr. Benjamin needs to clarify his position further since it really shocked quite a few people who called me up on the topic. It came off like New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s ridiculous statement, that there should have been a referendum on the civil rights issue back in the day (since whites felt it was all imposed on them). It was so absurd you couldn’t even consider it funny. Calling for a referendum on rights glaringly spelled out in the constitution, when blacks could hardly vote in most states without encumbrances, made no sense whatsoever. Christie later apologized; maybe Benjamin should too. This is sacred ground. Voting and free/fair elections are the cornerstones of democracy.
It took one hundred and forty years after the adoption of the NY state constitution to elect the first black to the legislature. That was in 1917 when a republican named Edward A. Johnson was elected. Twenty years later, the first Hispanic was elected to the body. His name was Oscar Garcia. In 1955, the first Afro woman was elected to the body. Her name was Bessie A. Buchanan. It took almost 200 years.
As historic as these feats were, they didn’t’ come about without lines being drawn favorably enough to facilitate such specific successes. In Brooklyn, folks like activist/educator Esmeralda Simmons, have been arguing for years, that lines can be drawn up more favorably relative to the aim of aiding the aspirations for minorities to secure larger representations on the legislative bodies (at all three levels of government). She is absolutely correct. It is a matter of the panel responsible for drawing up the new lines, not having the political will and courage to do it.
Let’s look at the reverse. In both Nassau and Suffolk counties of Long Island maps have been consistently drawn to hinder minority representation. I conclude it has been deliberately done. Why else would you split up minority dominated areas into three or four different jurisdictions? It appears that the dominant rationale for redrawing lines has been incumbent-protectionism. This is why the maps are so oddly-shaped for the most part. In all five boroughs of this city, we can find evidence of maps being drawn whereby aims of increased minority-representation are negated or minimized. It also appears to happen around the Buffalo area upstate.
Imagine a panel having the gall to submit preliminary maps calling for the creation of a new (from 62 to 63) senate seat, and placing it upstate in the heart of republican country. This being done after upstate New York has been consistently losing population relative to the rest of the state, for the past fifty years.
Let me reiterate: drawing political maps is no easy feat; but with new and sophisticated computer software now readily available, maps can drawn up in mere hours. These maps can be fine tuned to accomplish almost any objective relative to the demands of varied constituencies.
The proposed lines recently released by the panel, should be immediately rejected offhand. Governor Andrew Cuomo must insist on lines which maximize the potential for increased minority participation in the legislative process. The minority-vote shouldn’t be fragmented in order to maintain white supremacy in the legislative process. This is political-morality at its nadir. This is political-immorality at its zenith.
Stay tuned-in folks.