early and often

How New York’s Redistricting Became a Civil War for Democrats

“It was mass hysteria. Everyone assumed the whole thing was a plot.”

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty

Bill de Blasio was having lunch at Caffè Reggio in the West Village on the third Monday in May, sinking in to what he assumed would be a post-mayoral life of writing and commentary, when his phone started blowing up. State lawmakers were at a silent vigil for the Buffalo shooting victims when their phones started pinging. Alessandra Biaggi, a state senator from the Bronx and Westchester who had spent most of this year running for Congress in a district that was almost entirely on Long Island, was at home on her computer and thought, Okay, what am I supposed to do now?

The frantic browser refreshing and texting were because a postdoctoral fellow in political science at Carnegie Mellon University had, upon the order of the state’s Court of Appeals, released new maps that would determine what the state’s congressional districts would look like for the next ten years and, in doing so, tossed the city and state’s political order — particularly the Democratic side of it — into disarray.

Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney, who for a combined six decades represented side-by-side districts in Manhattan — he on the West Side, she on the East — were thrown together in one district stretching lengthwise across the island. Hakeem Jeffries and Yvette Clarke, longtime allies in the Brooklyn political firmament, were tossed into the same district after Bedford-Stuyvesant was split in two, dividing the historically Black district in a way Jeffries said would “make Jim Crow blush.” Nydia Velázquez, a 30-year incumbent from a district drawn to ensure Puerto Rican representation in the House of Representatives, was drawn out of hers, while an entirely new district that stretched across the bougie neighborhoods in lower Manhattan and the Brooklyn brownstone belt was created out of whole cloth.

Within hours of the new maps being released, the benign détente that had guided how the almost entirely Democratic members of the New York congressional delegation behave had been cast aside. Maloney and Nadler, both in their 70s, sat down for a tense meeting on the floor of the House; each tried to convince the other to stand aside before quickly announcing they both were running to represent the district (and starting to shiv each other in the press, including to me). Ritchie Torres, a 34-year-old freshman lawmaker from the Bronx, accused Sean Patrick Maloney, a Hudson Valley representative and the head of the Democratic congressional campaign arm, of racism after Maloney announced that he was going to run in a district just to his south currently represented by Mondaire Jones, who, along with Torres, is the first openly gay Black man to serve in the body. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said Sean Patrick Maloney should resign. The new lines seemed to mean that Democrats’ chances of retaining the House in the fall dropped to nil and that years of seniority built up by certain members would be wiped out. “It was mass hysteria, dogs and cats living together,” said one senior Hill aide. “Everyone assumed the whole thing was a plot against them.”

And it meant that what was expected to be a slow political season in New York City was immediately transformed into a 90-day sprint, a battle royale of all against all that will likely cost tens of millions of dollars and feature some of the most vicious Democrat-on-Democrat primaries New York has ever seen at a time when Republicans are set to make big gains in the November elections and the stakes for American democracy couldn’t be greater.

By some estimations, all this chaos was the result of years of well-intentioned ineptitude by Democrats and allied groups. By others, it was the work of an obscure Republican judge in one of the most rural corners of New York State. In reality, it was some of both.

To understand how we got here, you have to understand that nonpartisan, independent redistricting has been a cause of liberals and good-government groups going back decades. Every ten years, after the Census made it clear who lived where, state legislators would draw lines for themselves and for their state’s members of Congress. The system was essentially rigged by lawmakers, allowing them to pick where they wanted to run, and meant that across the country districts became increasingly Republican or Democratic and less likely to change hands in a general election as lawmakers looked to maximize partisan advantage.

There had been efforts at reform around the nation, including taking the power of redistricting away from lawmakers entirely and putting nonpartisan commissions in charge, but they were often stymied by what their guiding principle should be. Is the idea to draw districts that give each party an equal shot at winning? In a heavily Democratic state like New York, that is nearly impossible. Is it to draw “communities of interest” together to allow minority groups the opportunity to elect one of their own? Doing so often means drawing districts that bend and squiggle across a state, leading to charges of gerrymandering. Or is it best to just draw squares on a map, keeping each district as small and elegant as possible, even if it means longtime incumbents with deep ties to their communities suddenly find themselves locked out of power?

Mondaire Jones surprised pretty much everyone by running in a newly created district spanning lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

In 2014, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed a ballot measure over the objections of Democratic lawmakers that would create a commission evenly divided among Republicans and Democrats to produce congressional and state legislative maps. The measure, which passed easily even as some good-government groups saw it as flawed, gave the Legislature the power to reject the commission maps and draw its own if it wanted to. But it didn’t say what would happen if the commission failed to deliver a map at all. That’s what happened in 2022 after Democrats and Republicans on the commission came up with their own respective maps, effectively punting the decision to the Democratic Legislature.

The Legislature produced a congressional map that was prodded on by Sean Patrick Maloney, the Democratic campaign chair, that would have helped Democrats in their desperate efforts to retain their majority in Congress. Under the current map, Democrats represent 19 congressional districts in the state, and Republicans eight; under the Legislature’s map, most political prognosticators thought that it gave Democrats a shot at winning 22 seats, reducing the Republicans to a mere four seats, depending on the national climate.

There were some rather egregious lines: Biaggi was in a district that stretched across Long Island Sound to add the slightest sliver of the Bronx and Westchester to a district otherwise entirely on Long Island. An upstate Republican district was all but eliminated. The First Congressional District, which begins where the state begins on the eastern end of Long Island, was cut sideways in half and stretched to pick up larger (read: Democratic) population centers in Nassau County. A seat held by Republican Nicole Malliotakis centered on Staten Island was pulled upward to include the deep-blue Brooklyn neighborhoods of Park Slope.

Good-government groups were appalled. “A master class in gerrymandering,” said Michael Li of the Brennan Center, a comment that was echoed by Republican lawmakers. The Legislature had, in the opinion of Laura Ladd Bierman of the League of Women Voters, tried a “brazen disregard of the required process.” They thought the commission had made such moves impossible.

Republicans quickly sued, accusing the Democrats of violating the state constitution by drawing up a map that politically benefited one side. Democrats, though, were generally delighted. Hillary Clinton privately told Albany Democrats that they had saved American democracy. Democrats were usually allied with good-government groups. But now, in a world in which Republicans were gerrymandering red states to a fare-thee-well, a Q-Anon shaman was storming the Capitol, and Republicans around the country were running on the expressed pledge to not count votes for anyone but Donald Trump, “goo-goo” concerns seemed minor.

Alessandra Biaggi watched her district change through the redistricting process. Photo: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Most political observers thought the case was dead on arrival. Courts are reluctant to overrule legislators in political matters, and it was already late in the political season. But Republicans chose for their lawsuit to be heard in Steuben County, a rural and overwhelmingly Republican area in the state’s Southern Tier that is closer to Cleveland than it is to New York City. The judge that heard the case, Patrick McAllister, is a former vice-chairman of the local Republican Party and someone who bragged on his campaign literature about his membership in the NRA and Blue Lives Matter. McAllister refused to hear testimony over Zoom, so unless New York City residents were willing to make the five-and-a-half-hour drive north, they couldn’t weigh in. McAllister ultimately ruled that not only were the maps a partisan gerrymander, but lawmakers had essentially no right to draw the maps at all unless they had first rejected maps from the independent redistricting commission. That there were no such maps didn’t matter. McAllister also noted that according to the 2014 law, the maps needed to be approved on a bipartisan basis, ignoring the fact that when that law was written, Republicans still controlled one house of the Legislature (and indeed, in 2020, Republicans used the fact that all-Democratic control would give Democrats the right to draw district lines of their choosing as a campaign issue, but Democrats still retained a supermajority of seats in both bodies).

Democrats appealed, and again, most political observers presumed they would be successful once they got a hearing outside of conservative Steuben County. While the state Court of Appeals was hearing the case, Cuomo wrote an op-ed in the Daily News urging the court, six of whose seven members he appointed, to reject the Democrats’ case.

It was, one senior Albany Democrat said, “like the ghost of Andrew Cuomo reaching out his hand from beyond the grave to take revenge on us.” A few weeks later, the court did as he suggested. Writing for a 4-3 majority, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, a former Republican district attorney of Westchester County (she succeeded Jeanine Pirro in the job) and a close Cuomo ally, agreed that the Legislature had no ability to draw its own maps, and that because the previous exercise was a partisan gerrymander, it couldn’t be trusted to do it anyway. And so, rather than give the Legislature the chance to fix places where the lines were egregious (as courts have done in the past), the court assigned Jonathan Cervas, a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and a registered independent who last voted in the Republican primary, the task of drawing new lines.

“It was a mess by design,” said Susan Lerner, head of Common Cause New York, which broke from some of its good-government peers by opposing the 2014 bill. “The original constitutional amendment was drafted by Senate Republicans who understood the ins and outs of redistricting and placed land mines in the provision. It was designed to fail and written by Republicans who knew they were going to lose their dominance and did not want to have a fair redistricting process, and they were assisted in that by the now-disgraced Andrew Cuomo.”

Sean Patrick Maloney drew heavy criticism from some Democratic peers. Photo: Shutterstock

Democrats pointed out that the map the court rejected wasn’t even that gerrymandered. Some Democrats wanted lawmakers to be even more aggressive, leaving just two or three GOP-leaning seats. The map drawn by Cervas is not so different from what the Legislature came up with, giving Democrats majorities or close to it in 20 or so seats, just down a bit from the 22 or 23 seats the Legislature drew.

But he did toss New York politics into chaos. Because of the new lines, instead of June party primaries that would have coincided with that for the governor’s race, congressional campaigns are going to entirely occur on a three-month sprint through the hot city summer, culminating in a late-August primary when many New Yorkers are away and few are paying attention to politics.

Sitting over breakfast at Junior’s in Brooklyn on the start of a holiday week, Hakeem Jeffries, the fifth highest-ranking Democrat, was nearly trembling with frustration over how the redistricting process had played out. “When it comes to allegedly nonpartisan judges behaving irresponsibly, the Court of Appeals decision will go down in infamy as disgraceful,” he said. “The overall problem is not that any particular incumbent was inconvenienced, but that the people of New York were deprived of their ability to reasonably elect the candidates of their choice and historic communities of interest were detonated in a way that will only serve radical right-wing Republicans.”

The original map from Cervas showed that what he valued was having compact districts, never mind the actual realities of life in New York. Asian voters in the outer boroughs were tossed into several districts. Historic Black neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx were split into two or three districts. The most Jewish district in the country, represented by Nadler and snaking down the West Side into the orthodox neighborhoods of Brooklyn, would be split up.

Hakeem Jeffries, a Democratic leader in the House, was vocal in criticizing the redistricting process. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

As the congressional delegation waited on the final word, Jeffries urged his colleagues to keep their fire and focus on the process and not on each other. He invoked Shirley Chisholm and framed the fight as one of civil rights, urging the map-drawer to keep communities of interest together. He told people that he would rather retire than run against Yvette Clarke, a House colleague and ally who was drawn into his district.

But they didn’t listen. Almost as soon as the lines were announced, a war of all against all broke out. Congressional members who had dutifully stood aside for one another at press conferences where they were referred to as “my friend” and had co-signed statements and issued joint press releases were revealed to be barely able to contain their rivalries. They had nearly all jumped into the race of their choosing, never mind that they were ostensibly on the same team.

Sean Patrick Maloney said he would run in a district in which he lived, ignoring that the district was mostly the territory of Mondaire Jones, while Maloney’s old district was mostly redrawn into more Republican-friendly territory to the north. Jones, a lefty lawmaker who pushed out a longtime incumbent from her Westchester seat in 2020, publicly accused Maloney of trying to nudge him into running against Jamaal Bowman, another Black progressive who defeated a longtime incumbent in 2020, in a Bronx district. Jones accused Maloney of not playing fair. Progressives and Ocasio-Cortez rallied and said that Maloney, as head of the House campaign arm, would have an unfair advantage because of his ties to the donor class and should resign his position. Torres, meanwhile, who has always had an uneasy relationship with Jones and Maloney, piled on with additional criticism of Maloney.

Congressional campaign aides say that, in fact, Jones had been considering running against Bowman all along, and that he was prodded on by senior House Democrats, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and forces aligned with Eliot Engel (a longtime incumbent Bowman defeated in 2020), all of whom wanted to get rid of the ultra-progressive Bowman. Jones polled running in the suburban district to his north and the Bronx-centered one to his south, finding that he would win the primary in the suburbs but would be at risk of losing a general election there and that he would lose to Bowman in the Bronx. Jones, though, a Squad-adjacent member of Congress who often talks of abolishing the filibuster and expanding the Supreme Court, dreaded life as a member of a suburban swing district should he be able to eke out a win, while much of his staff threatened to quit if he decided to run against Bowman. Jones then astutely raised a ruckus about Maloney’s maneuvers to rally progressives to his side and shocked everyone by announcing that he wasn’t going to run against Maloney, Torres, or Bowman, but in the new district created in lower Manhattan and brownstone Brooklyn — saying that even though he didn’t live there, it was his “spiritual home” since it is also where the Stonewall Inn is.

Already running there, however, was de Blasio. The district includes much of de Blasio’s former council district, but it also includes many white progressives of the kind who turned on de Blasio during his years when he lived at Gracie Mansion. De Blasio is moving back into the district to his Park Slope townhouse once some renovations are completed, and sitting at a local coffee shop, where he knocked over a chair before sliding his elongated frame into an outdoor table, he explained how he was going to reintroduce himself to voters.

“After COVID, some people were like, ‘Don’t you want to go sit on a beach somewhere?’ No, I feel an urgency. I really hope you can see it. I just felt this constant energy, adrenaline to keep going. I believe in term limits, but to me it is kind of artificial where we were at this point where we had figured out a lot of what needed to be done and it was all of a sudden time ago.”

When the map came out, de Blasio decided to jump in the race “instantaneously,” he said. He also said he was shocked when Jones announced he was running for the seat. “I was surprised, but I am not sure we should be surprised by anything anymore. It’s a very volatile situation.” Jones had been telling would-be supporters that national Democrats were going to treat him as an incumbent member of Congress running for reelection, even though he doesn’t live in the district.

Polling is sure to be uncertain in a congressional primary, but a recent one had de Blasio, despite being mayor for eight years and having close to 100 percent name ID, tied with the lesser-known Jones. More than three-quarters of those polled said they were undecided. (“I like that hundred-percent name ID!” de Blasio said when I asked him about it.)

Meanwhile, a few miles away from where de Blasio was eating a banana bread and having an iced espresso, New Yorkers are bracing for a political battle for the ages. Jerry Nadler is so Upper West Side he once brought a Zabar’s bag to a congressional hearing to impeach President Trump. Carolyn Maloney, the first Democrat to serve an area that was once a silk-stocking Republican stronghold, is so Upper East Side that one of her major, yearslong causes was bringing a pair of pandas to the Bronx Zoo. (“Children love pandas!” she once gushed to this magazine at a charity fundraiser for her mission at the Waldorf Astoria.)

As soon as the new lines were announced, they both called Mark Guma, a political strategist who has worked with both of them, to try to lure him to their side. He ultimately chose Nadler.

The two representatives then talked to each other. According to Nadler, he sat down with Carolyn Maloney on the floor of the House and said he should run in the new district, and she should run in the lower Manhattan/brownstone Brooklyn district that didn’t (yet) have an incumbent in it. “And she rejected that out of hand.”

According to Maloney, it was she who approached him, calling him to say they should work together on a lawsuit to get the old maps restored. “And he said he thought it was a waste of time, and that was that. And then about an hour later I looked on Twitter and saw that he had announced. I am very bothered that after many years of friendship, he didn’t have the respect to tell me.”

Regardless, Maloney — who allies say has noted with admiration the funeral that sitting members of Congress receive compared to retired members — then took to Twitter to accuse Nadler of just being another man trying to elbow out a woman from power. “Elbow out?” Nadler responded when told of the accusation. “Ridiculous.”

“The thing that this revealed,” said one political consultant, “is that elected officials from neighboring districts really don’t like each other.”

“Primaries are often bloody and brutal and as the stakes get higher, that fundamental truth doesn’t really change,” said Evan Stavisky, a local political consultant, when asked why none of these elected officials, all of whom are adults, could wait to work this situation out themselves. “It’s an opportunity to serve in the House of Representatives. The meek may inherit the earth, but that doesn’t mean that’s how you win a congressional primary.”

Now, three decades of resentments are coming to the fore. Maloney pointed to her work to bring federal transportation dollars to New York and said she rides the Second Avenue Subway, which she helped get built, to cheer herself up. “And I’m not even on the Transportation Committee!” she said after a press conference in Times Square. (Nadler, it should be pointed out, is the committee’s chair, a position he beat out Maloney for.)

“He’s male, and he’s entitled, and he thinks he can say, ‘Get out of my way,’” Maloney told one supporter after her press conference.

Allies of Maloney’s say that Nadler took credit for her work in passing a health bill for 9/11 responders. Allies of his say that Maloney too often drifts over to the West Side for some of her public appearances, and can cite instances they felt like she was delivering backhanded criticisms of Nadler before his own voters.  They also say Maloney doesn’t have the intellectual heft he does and point to some of her more outlandish stunts, such as wearing a burka on the House floor to protest the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. “Jerry gets tired of Carolyn,” said one longtime friend of Nadler’s. “She can be a lot to take.”

As to why he is running for reelection against someone he was campaigning alongside just a few months ago, Nadler offered an answer when reached by phone in Washington, D.C. “I am a defender of democracy. I voted against the Iraq War. I voted against the Patriot Act. I voted for the Iran Deal,” he said. “All of which some people voted against.”

That person, of course, was Carolyn Maloney.

How New York Redistricting Became a Civil War for Democrats