Andrew Cuomo, the press and the war on redistricting

Michael Gianaris

April 01, 2011

Capital New York wrote about redistricting reform and supports Governor Cuomo's promise to create an independent redistricting commission and to veto any legislation creating a partisan redistricting panel.

Fresh off reaching an agreement on his first budget, Andrew Cuomo, flanked by legislative leaders, said, with deliberate exaggeration, "I hope this is the template for a new era of cooperation and productivity between the executive and the legislature. I'm hoping that this spirit of love and euphoria that I feel is infectious and grows and continues. Do you feel it, Dean? Do you feel it, Shelly?"

Who would begrudge the governor this moment of celebration? There were lots of things for lots of people to be unhappy about in this budget, but it was an inarguably great political feat for Cuomo to have finished on time, roughly according to the specs he's been laying out all along, and with the tersely smiling accession of the legislature to his Pax Cuomo.

For the governor's next trick, maybe he'll pick a fight that ends differently, without any joint appearance with "Dean" and "Shelly" at which he can force them to laugh about how he just rolled them.

It's because the next grand promise he'll have the opportunity to deliver on—the next insoluble Albany problem he can be the one to solve—is redistricting reform. And the fight over that one is necessarily to the death.

The way the law works now, the legislature controls the process of drawing electoral lines. And by tradition, the leaders of the majority in each legislative chamber get to draw the lines of their members; the Democrats draw the Assembly lines and the Republicans draw the Senate lines. (The lines of Congressional districts, already the subject this year of some expensive lobbying by House Democrats—who, for their own reasons, aren't in any hurry to reform the process—are a joint effort.) The governor then signs off on the new lines, or vetoes them.

Cuomo has proposed to hand redistricting over to an independent commission in time for next year's redrawing of lines (it happens every ten years); he's also promised to veto any redistricting legislation that does not provide for an independent process.

This would be revolutionary. But whether Cuomo actually follows through with his threat may depend on the amount of attention this issue continues to get over the coming weeks and months. The public, conventional wisdom tells us, doesn't care about "process" issues like this. But reporters and editorial writers do, and Cuomo cares about his press. As one Albany guy put it to me, "The threshhold question here is 'what will Eleanor Randolph let Cuomo get away with?'"

The danger, for anyone interested in putting an end to a process that protects unresponsive officials, is not that Cuomo will fail to get the legislature to go along with him; it is that he will cut a deal, in exchange for something else he wants, that would allow the legislature to keep a firmer hand in the process of drawing electoral lines than the reform proposal currently calls for.

The Senate Republicans, who occupy 32 of the Senate's 62 seats, have now made official their position that the issue should be dealt with by amending the state consitution—a process that wouldn't be completed in time to affect next year's round of redistricting. (Silver, who controls a massive majority in the Assembly that would not be threatened by independent redistricting, supports Cuomo's bill, for now.)

There are now three possible scenarios, as I understand it.

1) The governor, wielding the threat of a veto, and the ability to trigger an outcome that involves the a court-appointed "master" to oversee the process, can compel the Republicans to agree to his reform bill, which would allow the legislature to play a role in selecting the ostensibly independent commission that would actually redraw the lines.

2) The governor and the Senate Republicans (who pledged during last year's campaign, before they were in the majority, to back independent redistricting) can both refuse to yield, indefinitely, in which case the process will likely end up in court, and out of the hands of the legislature.

3) The governor can compromise with the Republicans by giving them enough say over the process that it is not truly independent, maybe in exchange for something else he wants that has nothing to do with redistricting at all.

(State Senator Michael Gianaris, the Queens Democrat who has been one of the most outspoken advocates for independent-redistricting legislation, explained his position as follows: "A court master is certainly more independent that the legislature itself. While I would prefer an independent commission, where the legislature has a voice, a court master is still better than the status quo.")

Read the full article here.