Capital Region

Sam Stratton’s career a study in gerrymandering

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Political science students who wish to examine the art of congressional redistricting, often derisively referred to as gerrymandering, can start by looking at the career of Democratic Congressman Sam Stratton.

A former mayor of Schenectady who served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 30 years – most of that representing Schenectady County – Stratton faced redistricting challenges from a state Legislature controlled by Nelson Rockefeller and Republicans throughout the 1960s and early 1970s.

The first and most significant effort by the Republicans to defeat Stratton came in 1962. When the state’s congressional districts were redrawn due to the 1960 census, and New York had to reduce its number of districts by two, Stratton’s 32nd District was eliminated. The Congressman was forced to make a decision as to where he would run for another term, and remaining in his Schenectady home meant he would have had to run against longtime Albany Democratic incumbent Leo O’Brien in the primaries.

Instead, Stratton chose to run in the new 35th District, which became known as the Submarine District because of its geographical shape. He would no longer represent Schenectady County, or Fulton and Hamilton counties, and instead moved to Amsterdam in Montgomery County. There, in the new 35th District, he would represent Montgomery, Otsego, Chenango, Cortland, Cayuga, Seneca, Ontario and Yates counties. While the change took him out to the central part of the state, it didn’t include cities such as Rochester, Syracuse or Utica. The district was mostly rural, stretched 190 miles long and 85 miles deep, and was designed by Rockefeller and his Republican architects in the state Legislature to defeat Stratton and get him out of statewide politics.

That fall of 1962, a New York Times editorial described the redistricting as a perfect example of gerrymandering.

“The only credible explanation for the lines used in the Thirty-Fifth District lies in the demands of partisan politics – a desire to benefit Republicans and to prevent the return to Congress of Representative Samuel S. Stratton, a Democrat from Schenectady and a rising light in state politics.”

The plan, however, didn’t work. Stratton’s son, Brian, who also became mayor of Schenectady from 2004-2011 and is now executive director of the New York State Canal Corporation, can’t remember much about the fall of 1962 — he was only 5 — but he knows the history.

“He was immediately redistricted by the Rockefeller Republicans to put him into a heavily Republican district, thinking there was no way a Democrat would win there,” said Brian Stratton. “But my father was a one-of-a-kind politician. He not only survived, he excelled. I can remember taking long drives with him in his old Volkswagen. We’d leave from Amsterdam and go all the way out toward Rochester, driving along much of the same road I do today as director of the Canal Corporation.”

Stratton was re-elected to represent the 35th District three more times before once again facing redistricting by Republicans in 1970.

“There were a lot of legitimate Republicans out there in the old 35th District who thought they could knock Sam off,” said Roger Mott, Stratton’s son-in-law and also his chief of staff during much of his tenure in Washington, D.C. “But he was just too much of a hard worker. He’d drive around his rural district, take a card table out of his station wagon and set up in front of a post office. He’d sit there and meet people all day, and people got the sense that they really knew him.”

Court-ordered redistricting shifted things again in the 1970 campaign when Stratton faced Albany Republican Daniel Button. Stratton supporters like to think he survived another gerrymandering attempt, but the goal of New York Republicans wasn’t clear that year. It was obvious that Button, never a favorite of party leaders, didn’t receive much help when the new districts were announced.

“My dad came out on the very short end of that stick,” said Nancy Button Nathan, Dan Button’s daughter. “New York had to lose two districts and they pretty much took out the 29th District. My father didn’t really have any choice as to where he could run. Stratton had a choice, but everybody knew where he was going to go. He was obviously very well-known in Schenectady.”

Stratton got redistricted twice more before announcing his retirement in 1988, but he was never moved out of the Schenectady/Amsterdam area, all but assuring his re-election. He served the 28th District from 1973-1983 and the 23rd District from 1983-1988.

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