The chaos that has upended this year’s congressional races in New York entered a new phase overnight Friday, when a court-appointed special master — a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon named Jonathan Cervas — published new, court-approved district lines, dropped electronically in the middle of the night, that have literally redrawn the map of power in New York. Below are six things to know about how we got here, what it means, and what comes next.
New York Avoided a Civil-Rights Firestorm
“This looks like it’s been gerrymandered to make sure Black people are not represented. It is an outrage,” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand told me this week in response to a preliminary version of new congressional maps that cut Bedford-Stuyvesant in half and dropped Brooklyn’s two Black members of Congress, Hakeem Jeffries and Yvette Clarke, into the same district.
Chopping up Bed-Stuy would have been an especially bitter pill to swallow: For decades, the large Black community had been divided across several congressional districts, allowing white congressmen to win year after year. It took a 1966 lawsuit, Cooper v. Power, to create a united neighborhood that promptly resulted in Shirley Chisholm becoming the first Black woman elected to Congress in 1968.
Jeffries — an attorney widely considered to be in line to become Speaker of the House in the near future — had tweeted that the initial proposed maps “take a sledge hammer to Black communities. It’s enough to make Jim Crow blush.” He also openly floated the idea of a lawsuit to challenge the maps as a violation of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits diluting the power of communities of interest along racial lines.
Cervas got the message. “In the draft congressional map, I inadvertently split the community of Bedford-Stuyvesant,” he wrote as part of a lengthy response to complaints about his first round of district lines. “I have placed this community in full in District 8. Bedford-Stuyvesant is now the core of District 8, as has historically been the case.”
Other minority communities were largely kept intact. The sprawling Seventh District, long represented by Nydia Velázquez — the first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress — currently links Latino communities on the Lower East Side, Sunset Park, and Bushwick. The new Seventh District sheds the Manhattan part of the district and has slightly less Latino voting power (35 percent, down from 37 percent), but will likely be where Velázquez seeks reelection.
A Jewish Objection, Denied
While it might not lead to civil-rights litigation, Jewish leaders complained to Cervas that redrawing the district long represented by Representative Jerry Nadler — which stretches down the West Side of Manhattan and snakes across the harbor to include Borough Park — would eliminate the only mostly-Jewish district in America.
“Boro Park’s Jewish community should be connected to communities that share their interests so that they are less politically isolated, and their political voices are more likely to be heard,” the leaders of the Jewish Community Relations Council said in a letter to the state court. The same letter implored Cervas not to put the East and West Sides of Manhattan into the same district.
“East Side Jews can be clearly differentiated from West Side Jews,” wrote JCRC president Cheryl Fishbein and CEO Gideon Taylor. “Rarely do the East Side Jews belong to synagogues located on the West Side, or vice versa. To a great extent, seldom do Jewish parents on the West Side send their children to Jewish schools on the East Side or the other way around.”
Cervas did not directly address the issue, instead downplaying the East-West divide in Manhattan: “Even the areas bordering on opposite sides of Central Park do not appear to be as strongly distinguished in terms of economic and demographic differences as they once were. Thus, while this is a hard choice, I do not find a compelling community of interest argument for changing the configuration of Manhattan congressional districts in the proposed map.”
No Matter What, New York Seems Set to Lose One of Its Most Powerful Members of Congress
By lumping Manhattan’s East and West Sides into a single district, the new maps pit Nadler and longtime incumbent Carolyn Maloney against each other; both have said they intend to run in the primary. That’s arguably a losing proposition for New York: Nadler chairs the powerful House Judiciary Committee, while Maloney leads the Committee on Oversight and Reform.
“I served the Court as a non-partisan expert,” Cervas wrote in his explanation. “These maps were drawn blind to the homes of incumbents, using the good government criteria set down in the New York State Constitution.”
Nadler and Maloney each spent decades accumulating the seniority and experience to win their chairmanships. If the two clash in a winner-take-all primary, much of that authority will vanish.
A New Progressive Tenth District Has Set Off a Political Free-for-All
The newly drawn Tenth Congressional District looks like a progressive politician’s dream: The Manhattan side includes Chelsea, Greenwich Village, and the Lower East Side, and the Brooklyn portion has Dumbo, Boerum Hill, Windsor Terrace, and all of Park Slope. A long list of pols is definitely or tentatively floating plans to run, including State Senator Brad Hoylman and Assemblymembers Jo Anne Simon and Yuh-Line Niou (who announced she was entering the race on Saturday afternoon).
Ex-Mayor Bill de Blasio, who announced his candidacy on MSNBC, should be considered the front-runner: Voters in much of the district have been electing him for a generation, from community school board and City Council (twice) to public advocate and mayor (twice). While de Blasio’s overall popularity was tanking toward the end of his mayoral term, his Park Slope base may be willing to go to bat for him one more time.
But a new twist came in the race for the Tenth District shortly after midnight, when Representative Mondaire Jones — a freshman whose Lower Hudson Valley district includes all of Rockland County and part of northern Westchester — unexpectedly announced that he’ll be competing in the new district, too. (Candidates for Congress don’t have to live in a district to run for it.)
“This is the birthplace of the LGBTQ+ rights movement. Since long before the Stonewall Uprising, queer people of color have sought refuge within its borders,” tweeted Jones, who made history (along with Ritchie Torres) as the first openly gay Black member of Congress.
Jones’s decision to leave the suburbs for a run in the city eliminates the possibility of a face-off in Rockland County against Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, who doubles as leader of the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and was drawn into the same district as Jones.
“From my point of view, I’m just running where I landed,” said Sean Maloney, who this week drew criticism from Black and Latino leaders (including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), who insisted he step down as leader of the overall Democratic congressional election effort while challenging a fellow incumbent.
The Road to Today’s Chaos Was Paved by Past Leaders
Ten years ago, a deal brokered by then-Governor Andrew Cuomo and the leaders of the Assembly and State Senate pushed through an amendment to the state Constitution that specified that redistricting maps would be the responsibility of a ten-member Independent Redistricting Commission split evenly between Republicans and Democrats. But this year, the panel deadlocked, unable to agree on a single set of maps, and the Legislature moved forward with its own maps — which violated the Constitution.
“What we said at the time was that this is designed to fail,” Deputy Senate Majority Leader Michael Gianaris told me. “Of course, what we predicted came to fruition. They were deadlocked five against five. They were unable to function. It didn’t even matter what lines we drew. The court said we had no power to enact any lines of any kind.”
So a measure of blame for today’s chaos belongs to former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who was later convicted of fraud, extortion, and money laundering (and recently died in prison); former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who also went to federal prison in an unrelated corruption scandal; and former governor Cuomo, who resigned last year amid allegations of misconduct.
The Bottom Line
New Yorkers, after figuring out what district they are now in, need to be prepared to vote twice this summer, as there will be two sets of primaries. On June 28, New York will hold primary elections for statewide offices (governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller and U.S. Senate), along with races for many local offices, including state assembly, civil court, and district leader.
Primary contests for Congress and for State Senate are scheduled for August 23. The August date — smack in the middle of when many New Yorkers will be away on vacation — was not selected randomly. Federal law requires that primaries be held early enough to allow overseas and military ballots to be printed and distributed before the November 1 general election.
Like everything else about politics this year, it’s more needlessly complicated than it should be.