Why Ed Koch Is Optimistic About Redistricting Reform

Sarah Laskow | February 28th, 2011

Ed Koch

NY Uprising, the good government group founded by former mayor Ed Koch, keeps an official list of “enemies of reform.” Throughout 2010, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was on it, for his refusal to promise change on issues like ethics reform. But now, based on his support for an independent redistricting committee, Silver may be coming off the enemies list.

“I’m going to take him down,” Koch told State Room on Tuesday. “He’s introduced the governor’s legislation!”

Of the reform issues that the former mayor has been pushing since the outset of the 2010 election season, the first one to face political reckoning is redistricting reform. In mid-February, Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled his plan for an independent redistricting commission, which would take the responsibility for drawing district lines out of the hands of self-interested legislators. Silver sponsored the Assembly’s version of the bill, and last week, he began more openly canvassing for co-sponsors. Koch will be in Albany tomorrow, working to push the bill into law.

“I believe we’re on the cusp of victory,” he said. “As a result of our efforts last year, including getting candidate — now governor — Andrew Cuomo on board, we have a huge chance of prevailing.”

While Cuomo has embraced this sort of good government pushes, throughout the campaign season, Silver resolutely stayed mum, earning him his “enemy status.” (Nothing personal, of course, says Koch. “Shelly and I go back 40 years,” Koch said. “We’re very good friends. I want to be able to say: Shelly Silver is my leader.”)

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos did sign the NY Uprising pledge promising to support their reforms. But in recent weeks, he hasn’t exactly jumped to support the governor’s plan, which would give rise to a commission that would not include legislators, their aides, lobbyists, or other too-interested parties.

“There’s a whole list of prohibitions,” said Koch, who’s scheduled to meet with Skelos and Silver, among others, tomorrow. “Those are what’s intended to keep the ultimate committee one we can all be proud of.”

At one point in New York State’s history, the state was apportioned into districts according to something resembling common sense. The map below, from the archives of the New York Public Library, represents the state’s senatorial districts in the mid-1800s:

Courtesy of The New York Public Library (www.nypl.org)

At the time, there were only eight districts, but each one consisted of particular counties. The first district, for instance, contained the most heavily populated areas: New York, Kings, and Richmond (that is, Staten Island).  The second district contained the area around that — the two Long Island counties of Queens and Suffolk, and counties directly north of the city, like Westchester, Rockland, and Orange.

Over time, however, those lines have been distorted according to the political whims of those in power at the time. This map traces the borders of state senate districts, as they were drawn in 2002, after the last census:

Instead of each district containing multiple counties, each county might contain multiple districts.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that the independent commission will change this situation and create rational districts out of the multi-limbed beasts that currently dot the state. As Koch says, the success of his push for reform will only be clear once an independent commission does its work.

“You’ll see the lines,” he said. “Are the districts compact? Or do you see salamanders running around?”