It isn’t often that I read a serious legal story, sit back and chuckle to myself, but I found myself doing so twice in recent days – first as I read Courthouse News coverage of a gerrymandering case currently working its way through a federal court in New York, then a second time after hearing about the citizen redistricting of California.
“So this is what it comes to,” I thought to myself with a slow, self-confirming nod. “Some things never change.”
You see, as a young journalist plying my trade at a weekly newspaper, I had a front row seat for the original drawing of the legislative district lines that are now a point contention in a pair of lawsuits in Nassau County, a suburb of New York City.
It all started with federal lawsuit that few but political junkies paid much attention to; a group of minority voters sued Nassau County and its Board of Supervisors, claiming that the political system that had been in place since the county was formed in late 19th century effectively preventing them from voting for and having a reasonable expectation of being represented by the elected official of their choice.
At the time, the Board of Supervisors was comprised of six members representing the county’s primary political subdivisions -the supervisors of the Towns of North Hempstead and Oyster Bay, the mayors of its two nominal cities, Glen Cove and Long Beach, and because it was so populous, the supervisor and deputy supervisor of the Town of Hempstead.
In due course, Judge Arthur D. Spatt found the Board of Supervisors unconstitutional on the grounds that its configuration and the weighted-voting system it employed to make decisions violated the principal of “One Person-One Vote” and significant portions of the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1964.
That fateful decision was only the beginning of an extraordinary – and eye-opening remediation process, one that began in the Fall of 1993 with the formation of the Nassau County Commission on Government Revision, and culminated a year later with voter approval of a referendum that established the current 19-member legislature and putting in place several significant governmental reforms.
It was about mid-way through this process, in March 1994, that I received a call from a neighbor whose home was diagonally adjacent to mine.
“We’re issuing our report tomorrow night,” Francis X. Moroney, executive director of the commission said. “You might find it interesting. Why don’t you come down?”
The meeting was held in a conference room adjacent to a popular county golf course, and around a long conference table sat the commission that would rewrite the county’s rules – the primary subject of the report – and create the legislative districts themselves.
Strangely, I thought, given the fact the group was about to issue “its” work product, tension remained in the room. Several of those at the table were attorneys, but beyond, it quickly became clear that they represented different “factions”.
There were those, of course, to make sure the minority plaintiffs – all of them African-American – were done right by the process, there was at least one hardcore independent, and then there were clearly the Republicans and Democrats, who seemed to eye each other warily regardless of what was being said.
But it was the drawing of the legislative district map itself that was to prove the most fascinating aspect of all.
“The primary thing that had to be resolved was the constitutional requirement,” Moroney told me after that first meeting.
Before they did anything else, the commissioners had looked at where the vast majority of African-Americans lived, which turned out to be the central corridor of the county. Then the commission began to consider several options – one for nearly every commissioner in the room and, it seemed for every political boss who was judiciously standing outside of it.
The early issue was whether proposed districts were instances of “packing” – putting too many people of one voting block in a single district – or “cracking” – in essence diluting the voting power of any one segment of the voting population in proposed districts.
“Eventually we decided 19 was the optimum number of districts,” Moroney said.
The preliminary map created two minority-majority districts, areas where African-Americans and Hispanics made up the bulk of registered voters.
The next concern was keeping smaller communities, villages and unincorporated areas largely defined by school district lines, whole. In the end 52 of the county’s 64 villages were wholly within one single district or another the exceptions where those, like my home village of Westbury, which needed to be divided in order to create the minority-majority districts.
In the case of Westbury, the line between districts 2 and 11 was literally the yellow line done the middle of the village’s main street, Post Avenue.
But not everyone was happy. continued
Democratic County Chairman Stephen J. Sabbath insisted the map had been designed to perpetuate the Republican’s longstanding domination of Nassau politics. At the time, Republicans enjoyed a 3-2 enrollment edge over the Democrats, and had been in power, with just two or three year’s exception, for nearly a century.
“This map is a partisan blueprint for one-party control of county government for the foreseeable future,” Sabbath said.
Moroney took offense, saying that statements like Sabbath’s -statements that had gotten a lot of play in the local newspapers – where merely the statements of a leader “whose job it is to be political.”
“Cut away the press releases and what you arrive at is a process that has taken place with political blinders on,” he said.
In fact, the commission vote in favor of the map was 13-2, with more Democrats voting for the preliminary map that against it. The map would next be reviewed by Judge Spatt, subjected to a public comment period, reviewed by the outgoing board of supervisors, and then put up for the aforementioned public vote.
But my neighbor’s good intentions aside, politics would weigh very heavily on the weeks that followed, when input from the public was supposed to lead to tweaks to the lines.
And Sabbath wasn’t the only one to be aggrieved. Commission member Neal Lewis, the independent, quickly unveiled his own map that sought to encompass a broader definition of “minority” to include Asians, women and other interest group. Radically different from any of the other alternatives considered, it was quickly cast aside from the commission.
In the meantime, I had gotten to know the team of Democratic and Republican demographers working on the project, and the story they told about the drawing of district lines was markedly different from that promulgated by the commission.
No matter how the 19 districts were drawn, simple demographics would ensure certain districts would be safe Republican or Democratic strongholds. What was really up for grabs was the fate of the so-called “fair fight districts”, and that is where the process became very interesting.
The reason is a subtle shift that had been occurring in elections below the county level in the years leading up to the creation of the legislative districts. Despite the edge the Republicans had in voter registration, Democrats, led by a Republican-turned Democrat candidate for town supervisor named Ben Zwirn, had swept into office in the Town of North Hempstead, and another Democratic, Lew Yevoli, had won the supervisorship in the Town of Oyster Bay.
At the same time, two other members of the Board of Supervisors, Bruce Nyman of Long Beach and Tom Suozzi of Glen Cove, were also Democrats.
With that as context, there was a tremendous amount at stake for both political parties as demographers entered each proposed district’s borders into their computer programs.
Once the minority district question was settled – incidentally creating a Democratic minority district and a Republican minority district – a lot of tweaking was done with eye toward the legislative races to come.
The new county legislature would open up opportunities for advance for members of both parties who had gone as far as they could either in local government or in their local party committee, and many were not shy about declaring their intention to run – long before the ink was dry on even the earliest versions of the district map – and leaning on their respective party leaders to have things come out their way.
Well, let me clarify, the Democrats were rumbling in the ranks, being the more boisterous of the two local parties. The Republicans, on the other hand, mainly quietly expressed their interest, fearing that to say or do more would alienate then- Republican Chairman Joe Mondello, who ran the party with an iron will.
(In short, if you wanted to have any future in Republican politics, he told you, you didn’t tell him. That said, some of Mondello’s preferences where known fairly early on.)
One afternoon as I went to pick up copies of the latest districts maps, I fell into a conversation with the handful of people working in the Charter Revision Commission’s office that day.
Compared to recent days, the mood was relaxed and the conversation strayed from demographics to politics, and the game of matching names of prospective candidates to districts.
What was clear is that each party – and quite understandably – wanted to ensure that no significant competition be drawn into a district where one of the respective favorites lived – if such a situation could possibly be helped.
“In some cases, it’s relatively easy,” one of the staffers told me.
“Barbara [a prominent Democrat] lives here, and Mike [a rising star n the local Republican party] lives over there, and their homes are far enough apart that you can easily place them in different districts without upsetting the populations of each district that we’re striving for,” another staff chimed in.
“Where it gets tough is when they live in same neighborhood or close to it,” the first staffer continued.
What do you do then? I asked.
“Well that’s when you get out the phone book, verify the address, and see if you can inch the district line over to put a border between them,” one of the staffers said.
“You can do that?” I said, trying to seem as wide-eyed as I possibly could.
“So long as you move another part of the line to even out the district populations again,” somebody said.
I must have looked surprised during the pregnant pause that followed.
Finally, the first staffer smiled and shrugged.
“When it comes to a deal, there is no law,” he said. “Remember, the court-mandates have been met, but getting the approval of the parties, the sitting leaders and the public… that’s a process outside of what any court can do.”