N.Y. GOP is fighting demographic tide

December 24, 2010
    Last week’s court decision in the 7th Senate District race means that the Republicans will retake the New York State Senate in January. But though that control will give them a critical role in the redrawing of legislative district lines based on the 2010 Census, they’re unlikely to be able to stem the tide of demographics and history.
    Thanks to New York City’s continuing role as a magnet for new migrants — both foreign and domestic — the traditionally Democratic areas of the state have gained population, while the upstate Republican strongholds have lost. In fact, the population loss upstate is so great that New York is set to lose two congressional seats.
    In the past, both political parties in the legislature have used creative gerrymandering to help protect incumbents and, when possible, expand their majorities. But the Democrats’ growing demographic dominance throughout the state is daunting for even the most innovative GOP line-drawing strategies: between 1996 and 2010, Republican registration fell 5 percent, to 25 percent of the voters, while the Democrats grew by 3 percent to 50 percent.
    During the campaign, all but one Republican senator signed former New York City Mayor Ed Koch’s pledge to support a nonpartisan redistricting commission. But key members of the Democratic Assembly rejected it. That means the method used for redistricting will probably be the same as in decades past, in which the majority leadership in each house retains enormous influence over how the lines are drawn.
    Over the past 30 years, the legislature has appointed a commission to draw state and congressional lines. The commission is made up of two appointees each from the speaker of the Assembly and the president pro tempore of the Senate, and one appointee from the minority leaders in both houses. The legislature then accepts or slightly modifies the plan, which is subject to gubernatorial veto.
    In practice, the Democratic-controlled Assembly and the Republican-controlled Senate have operated under a nonaggression pact. Since both have an easy ability to block the other side, they have simply given free range for the majority to gerrymander its own districts.
    But the Democrats’ growing demographic strength may ultimately prove impossible for the GOP to surmount. Even after an embarrassing performance in the Senate majority since 2008, the Senate Democrats were not heavily punished at the polls statewide. They lost only a net of two seats — just enough to lose the majority. One of the new Republicans, Buffalo’s Mark Gristani, is a recent Democrat who squeaked by in an extremely Democratic district upstate. He has vowed to vote for Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) as leader — but made no promises after that.
    Even if Gristani stays true to his new party, the Republicans will be hard-pressed to turn this bare majority into a great redistricting triumph. Democrats don’t need a favorable redistricting — just a neutral one.
    The Republicans have essentially owned the State Senate for almost all of the past 100 years. They’ll do their best to keep it that way for the next 10. But basic demography might ultimately prove to be the end of this once-enduring majority.
    Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College.