Civics, Culture & Community Engagement
By Aminta Kilawan Narine, Esq.
You might have heard some buzz around “redistricting” these past few months. For three decades, leaders in the Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park neighborhoods of South Queens have been calling on the powers that be to unite areas comprising a significant South Asian and Indo-Caribbean population within the boundaries of the same district lines.
Every 10 years, State Legislature and Congressional districts are redrawn to account for U.S. Census results.
The process is governed by the federal Voting Rights Act. It varies by state. At a minimum, Section 2 of the Act requires that consideration be given to the “compactness,” “contiguity,” and “communities of interest” within district lines. Race can be considered a factor in determining a community of interest, but legally, it can’t be the only factor. Other criteria such as a common history or culture, similar socio-economic backgrounds, shared religious backgrounds, and common political issues can additionally factor in. The understanding is that the more divided communities of interest are, the more diluted their voting power is. The more diluted their voting power is, the less likely they can elect a candidate of their choice. And if communities of interest can’t elect a candidate of their choice, historically those communities have secured fewer resources including education, healthcare, transportation, infrastructure, sanitation, and more.
In New York, new lines must be passed as a bill in the State Legislature (the State Assembly and the State Senate) and signed by the Governor. The New York State Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment, known as “LATFOR,” traditionally created the plan. The partisan LATFOR was established by Chapter 45 of the New York State Laws of 1978 to “research and study the techniques and methodologies to be used by the U.S. Commerce Departments’ bureau of the Census in carrying out the decennial federal census.” LATFOR was created to guide the decisions of the Legislature. Still in existence, LATFOR has six members, the majority of whom are elected officials, and two who are not elected officials.
In 2014, efforts were made to reform the inherently flawed process which some have indicated included legislator deal making to secure seats. Through an amendment to the State Constitution the “Independent Redistricting Commission” (IRC) was added to New York’s redistricting process. Chaired by David Imamura, a Democratic Asian American attorney at a big law firm in Manhattan and Election Law expert, the IRC was intended to be the first bipartisan Commission responsible for drawing New York State’s district lines following the 2020 Census. In theory, the IRC was supposed to turn a new page for redistricting in New York. They put in the work on the front end. IRC members attended meetings with advocacy groups such as the APA VOICE Redistricting Task Force which includes several organizations with programs actively serving Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park residents. The IRC actively engaged in listening to hours of public testimony, including at York College this past December, where the majority of speakers who testified were community members identifying as residents, leaders and elders of Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park.
The IRC drew and released satisfactory maps that had community members excited at the prospect of a State Assembly district that would be responsive to their long-time call to action. Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park would finally be united.
Then, as politics would have it, the IRC couldn’t come to a compromise across party lines. Democrats and Republicans couldn’t agree to move forward on one set of maps, instead coming up with two sets and not being able to share anything final with the State Legislature to put up for a vote. Politics as usual, but maybe there was still hope. Maybe legislators would do the just and equitable thing. Community members who invested time and countless hours of advocacy and strategy sat at the edges of their seats in the wee hours of the morning awaiting the release of legislation with proposed maps. Some rallied for a public hearing on January 31 while awaiting the lines so that legislators could hear from impacted people about what they felt served justice. Clarion cries seemed to fall on deaf ears as legislators came to an agreement on district lines in closed door meetings with no opportunity for public input, scheduling a vote just days later.
In the end, political preservation won, but communities of interest did not. State Assembly Member Jenifer Rajkumar issued a statement on February 1 stating, “I am very pleased to report that my district remains intact and its people united. My district is known for its wide-ranging ethnic and regional diversity, from Italians to Irish to Polish to Dominicans to Mexicans to Punjabis to Bengalis to Indo-Caribbeans. It remains that way.” The maps were also celebrated by elected officials like Assembly Member David Weprin who have indicated that they centered the voices of community members, many who met one-on-one with local Assembly Members to gain their support and commitment to unite Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park.
In fact, Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park will still be divided, but instead of split across 7 districts at the State Assembly level, they would be divided across 3 districts, and sliced right down the middle at what would arguably be considered the nucleus of the community of interest. At the State Senate, the most appalling is arguably District 15 which includes Maspeth, Howard Beach and Richmond Hill; neighborhoods with very distinctly different populations and needs. With lots of lessons to be learned, and lots of debriefing still to happen, the most immediate reaction to be felt by community members is a sense of betrayal coupled with a renewed vigor to hold elected officials accountable. As our ancestors have said, “all skin teet na laugh.”
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of the THE WEST INDIAN.