SCHENECTADY — The mayors of Albany, Schenectady and Troy gathered Wednesday for what they called a “once-in-a-decade press conference” to call on the state’s Independent Redistricting Commission to leave all three cities in the same congressional district.
Under current plans released by the commission, Schenectady could be splintered off from the two other Capital Region cities and lumped into a district that would span parts of Central New York and the Southern Tier.
Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy said the proposal would negatively impact not only Schenectady, but all three Capital Region cities, which have a working relationship and share similar interests, including the same transportation district, regional planning commission as well as businesses and nonprofits rooted in all three communities.
“Our ability to advocate in Washington through a single member of Congress is a much stronger position for our respective cities and the residents in the Capital District,” McCarthy said.
On Wednesday, McCarthy, along with Albany Mayor Kathy Sheenan and Troy Mayor Patrick Madden — all Democrats — sent a letter to the redistricting commission highlighting the shared services and commonalities the communities share.
Dividing the cities into two separate Congressional districts, the letter says, would “fly in the face” of the task of the commission and would dilute the voice of communities of color and poorest communities located in each city.
“Being divided into two districts and represented by two different congressional members would not only fly in the face of the charge issued to the Commission by the New York State Legislature, but it would have a direct, negative impact on some of the most historically challenged Census tracts in our region,” the letter reads. “We implore this Commission to ensure our three cities remain in the same Congressional district and provide our residents with the most effective form of federal representation possible.”
But the proposed redistricting lines would not just impact Schenectady, but the city of Amsterdam to the west, which would be moved out of the 20th Congressional District and into the sprawling North County district represented by Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville.
The proposed changes have prompted concerns from local officials who fear the voice of diverse communities would be lost in the shuffle, and has brought to light questions about who would represent the Capital Region district, long served by Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam.
A look at the proposals
The Independent Redistricting Commission, a bipartisan body approved by voters in a statewide referendum in 2014, has been working to redraw districts for state and federal offices since results from the 2020 Census were released earlier this year.
But due to population loss, New York is losing a seat in Congress, which means the commission must redraw the lines to account for one less seat while ensuring all districts have an equal number of residents.
The commission must also take into account similarities in each community that would ensure residents have effective and fair representation.
Two proposals currently exist after the commission’s 10 members could not come to an agreement. Plans must be submitted to the Democratic-controlled state Legislature — which has the ability to alter the maps — by Jan. 15.
The maps drawn by the commission would each significantly alter the 20th Congressional District, which currently encompasses all of Schenectady and Albany counties, as well as eastern Montgomery, southern Saratoga and western Rensselaer counties. The district includes the cities of Albany, Amsterdam, Saratoga Springs, Schenectady and Troy.
Under one proposal, Schenectady would remain part of the same district as Albany and Troy, but all of Montgomery and Saratoga counties would be absorbed into the sprawling North Country district.
In the second, Saratoga County would remain divided just north of Saratoga Springs, but Schenectady would be grouped with Binghamton and other Southern Tier cities instead of the Capital Region. All of Montgomery County would also be lumped in with the North Country district.
The proposed changes are not optimal, but not entirely surprising given the population loss seen over the last decade throughout the North Country, according to Ronald Seyb, an associate professor of political science at Skidmore College.
“The Capital District is in many ways not monolithic at all, but it has a lot of shared interests, a lot of collaboration and partnership. That is far from an optimal outcome, but not surprising,” he said. “You almost have to break those up because of the one person one vote requirement. You have to have equal populations in those districts.”
Still, shared services within the current district would mean dividing the Capital Region into two districts would not only go against the commission’s objective, but would hamper progress the region has seen throughout collaborative efforts, McCarthy said.
“What we’re dealing with now is the opportunity to continue to build on the good things that are going on in the Capital Region,” he said. “We don’t want that sidetracked in a way that it’s impaired by the redistricting process where you get a congressional district that is divided up.”
Concerns about representation
The concerns extend beyond shared services.
Local leaders also fear the proposed maps would significantly weaken minority voices in future elections.
Schenectady is home to large segments of Black and brown populations, as are Albany and Troy. Dividing those voices up would mean those individuals would have less say, according to Sheehan, the Albany mayor.
“Our Black and brown residents are concentrated in these three cities,” she said. “I think dividing these three cities in any way will dilute that vote. It will dilute the strength that we bring, the advocacy that we bring to individuals that are most in need.”
In Montgomery County, Amsterdam’s population of 17,700 accounts for roughly a third of the county’s total population of roughly 49,000, according to Census data. The city is also the center of diversity in the county, with approximately 31% of residents identifying as Hispanic or Latino and nearly 5% identifying as Black.
The North Country, on the other hand, is predominantly white, which means minority voices would be dramatically weakened during elections, according to Seyb.
“If you move a community of color into a predominantly white district you are not achieving the goal of amplifying their voice,” Seyb said. “In this instance [Amsterdam] is moving into a district where they are such a minority that their voice will probably be muted, if not heard at all.”
A look ahead
It’s unclear what the future congressional districts in the state will ultimately look like.
The Independent Redistricting Commission is still in the process of holding public hearings to solicit input, though a plan, or plans, must be submitted to the Legislature for consideration by Jan. 15.
In Montgomery County, concerns of the future are divided along party lines.
Terry Bieniek, Montgomery County Democratic party chairman, is concerned the interests of residents in Amsterdam would be lost in the sprawling North Country under the current proposals.
“We have an unusual makeup here because of the city,” he said. “Do you really think that Elise Stefanik could relate to the city of Amsterdam with a highly Democratic population? I don’t think so.”
Bieniek believes Tonko has served the communities interest well.
“He serves us very well, his whole life was dedicated to serving Montgomery County and now you’re giving him a district that we could lose him. I don’t know if the candidate that comes out the winner will be as beneficial to Amsterdam or Montgomery County as Paul Tonko, so it does make me upset,” he said.
But for Michael McMahon, chairman of the county’s Republican party, grouping the county into the North Country would not only benefit Republicans, but make sense for residents. Stefanik, he said, would be “favorable for people.”
“One of the confusing things, I think, for Montgomery County is our identity. We’re seen as the Capital Region, Central New York, the gateway to the Adirondacks. I think it would simplify that view of Montgomery County,” he said. “We’re not like Schenectady, we’re not like Albany. We’re more like Fulton County to the north and Schoharie County to the south.”
Meanwhile, Tonko, an Amsterdam resident, is also concerned about the possible impacts of splitting up the city of Amsterdam and cities of the Capital Region into separate congressional districts due to the level of shared interests, as well as common programs and services.
“The 20th Congressional District is a good example of responding to what seems to be the highest guidelines and goals of the redistricting process to keep together communities of common interest,” he said. “There is no denying when you look at work patterns and travel patterns and institutional patterns there is a connection amongst these communities that are part of the district.”
While the continuation of the redistricting process into early next year leaves open the question of where his hometown will ultimately land, Tonko acknowledged he may consider relocating when he seeks reelection in 2022.
“I’ve put a lot of work into the many communities I’ve represented over 45 years. I will make that decision based on where I can provide the greatest strength for the issues I’ve worked on,” Tonko said.
Meanwhile, McCarthy is hoping the commission will take into consideration how the proposed changes will impact the city.
“I would hope the commission is able to come to an agreement,” he said.
Reach Ashley Onyon at [email protected] or @AshleyOnyon on Twitter.
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.