Updated 09/29/2010 12:54 PM
Crooked Lines, Part 2: For State Lawmakers, Job Security Lies Within The (District) Map
State lawmakers usually win reelection with little or no opposition, and critics say that’s no accident. As Bobby Cuza explains in part two of his "Crooked Lines" series, because lawmakers draw their own district lines, opponents can be almost literally wiped off the map.
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Albany has been called the country's most dysfunctional legislature. Voters say they're fed up. Polls show a disapproval rating of about 75%. And yet, state lawmakers are practically invincible at the polls. This year, 188 state legislators are running for reelection; in the Sept. 14 primary, exactly four of them were defeated. Most didn't even face a challenger.
How is this possible?
One reason is the state's redistricting process. Every 10 years, after the Census, legislative districts must be redrawn to account for population changes. And the ones drawing the lines...are the legislators themselves. Specifically, the majority parties in each house of the legislature. And historically, they've manipulated the lines in ways that practically guarantee their members get reelected, a practice known as gerrymandering.
Good-government groups say it's a glaring conflict of interest, and are pushing for reform in time for the next redistricting cycle, which begins early next year.
This four-part series takes a deeper look.
It was the year 2000, and longtime Brooklyn Assemblyman Roger Green was feeling threatened. Upstart Hakeem Jeffries had nearly upset Green in the Democratic primary. So when the Assembly's Democrat leadership redrew district lines in 2002, Jeffries found his home at 230 Park Place had been drawn out of Green's district.
"I went to bed, I was in the 57th Assembly district. I woke up the next morning, I was in the 52nd," Jeffries said.
Or, take longtime Bronx State Senator Guy Velella. In 2000, he held off a tough challenge from Lorraine Coyle Koppell. Two years later, when the senate leadership redrew its lines, her house, at 5011 Waldo Avenue, was carved out of the 34th Senate District.
With that kind of power, critics say it’s no wonder Albany lawmakers rarely face any meaningful competition. In fact, it’s often said legislators are more likely to die or go to jail than be voted out of office.
In Velella’s case, it was jail. After pleading guilty to a felony bribery charge, he did time on Rikers Island, which ironically had been drawn into his district, padding the population by about 13,000 people.
Green, meanwhile, pleaded guilty to larceny charges for falsifying travel expenses in 2004. But with Jeffries drawn out of the district, Green ran again anyway and won the primary unopposed. Jeffries eventually moved back into the district and was elected in 2006.
"I knew that there would be repercussions by challenging an incumbent. But cutting my house out of the district by a block seemed like an incredibly gangsta move," Jeffries said.
The tactics appear to be working. Despite the legislature’s 75 percent disapproval rating, Albany lawmakers almost always win reelection.
"The incumbency reelection rate is in the high 90th percentiles here in New York State. That’s absolutely shocking," said Susan Lerner of the government watchdog group Common Cause/NY.
A bill now advancing in Albany would take redistricting out of lawmakers’ hands. But asking them to give up what amounts to a job security program is proving an uphill climb.