It’s the late ’60s, and I’m working for another local newspaper, meaning that often I would cover Congressman Sam Stratton, whose district — if I remember it correctly — included part of Montgomery County. Then, in 1967, I moved to Rochester to work for a newspaper there, three hours and 200 miles westward, and believe it or not I am still covering Sam Stratton because his infamous “Submarine District” stretches all the way to Canandaigua, which was in the Rochester news-coverage area.
The independent-minded Stratton had ticked off his own Democratic hierarchy to the point where the mucky-mucks tell the gerrymanderers in the Senate and Assembly to sharpen their Crayolas. They go ahead and draw this fun-lovingly long, nutty kind of district across much of upstate with a protrusion midway that vaguely resembled a submarine’s conning tower and thus the nickname. Made no difference; Sam won every time and finally the Democrats caved, permitting him to return to the Capital Region, in effect allowing him to “come in from the cold.”
That’s the way it goes when it’s your box of crayons; you get to draw the lines. And so it was this week as the Assembly Democrats and the Senate Republicans released their “lines,” which is shorthand among the political hangers-on at the Capitol for redistricting. Do-gooders screamed and the gerrymandering lawmakers insisted, right hands in the air, that the “lines” were not drawn to protect incumbency and no, they are not taking their constituents for numskulls. Maybe not numskulls, but your elected representatives know well that you and I have short attention spans and memories and that there are other things, like late car payments and scraping together bail for the brother-in-law, that are more important to us than redistricting.
Otherwise, why would so many Senate Republicans feel free to sign Ed Koch’s pre-election pledge to hand over the line-drawing to some sort of independent redistricting commission and then go back on their words? They know, come November, we’ll be lucky if we remember who Ed Koch was, let alone that pledge about something or other. But still, it would be nice if lawmakers did not insult our collective intelligence by insisting that the lines are not drawn to virtually guarantee incumbents a free pass at re-election time. Why do you think that 96 percent of incumbents get re-elected, ’cause they’re doing such a good job?
Look, forget all about the percentage of incumbents who waltz home or the lawsuits over the constitutionality of the lines or whether New York will have one, two or three primaries this season. All you need to know about redistricting can be had in a story in the New York Observer a few days ago.
In it, Assemblyman Herman “Denny” Farrell confirms what everybody knows and what official Albany loves to deny: The game is rigged, the fix is in and ain’t nobody but the home team gonna win.
Farrell is explaining to a town hall meeting in Harlem how he and his fellow Democratic map-makers in the Assembly have been trying hard to come up with a safe district for Congressman Charlie Rangel so he can win his 22nd term in the House and perhaps redeem himself after being censured by fellow members for a number of alleged ethics violations. Because New York state is losing two of its 29 districts this time around, the remaining 27 must get larger, in Rangel’s case, by 200,000 people. Rangel wants the district to remain in Manhattan, but Farrell explains the only way you could do that would be to expand southward. “What that would mean,” says Farrell, “is the district would be represented by a white. Now that sounds racist, but so be it.”
Farrell says the Assembly finally came up with a district that starts in Manhattan and then winds its way through the Bronx and up into Westchester County. The new district, sounding vaguely familiar, registers about 41 percent African-American, the rest a mix of Latino, Asian and white, tailor-made for Rangel.
Says Farrell: “You must understand, for the last 40 years, whatever district Charlie Rangel wants, we give it to him, we in the Assembly … I say ‘Charlie, we can’t draw anything else in the state till we draw you. That’s always been our position: We do you and then everything.’ He’s the dean; he’s No. 1.”
That last paragraph explains it all.