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12th January

First Published in The New York Sun, January 12, 2007

By Andrew Wolf

In what could be a radical change in the way state government is run, Governor Spitzer is pushing the idea of nonpartisan redistricting for elections to the state Legislature and to Congress, a reform proposal whose time may have come.

But in designing new procedures to draw legislative districts, I urge caution. We could end up replacing raw partisan political considerations with something worse: extreme political correctness, enforced by Washington bureaucracy.

Nonpartisan redistricting is the model we have adopted here in Gotham to draw the 51 City Council districts. This “good government” reform has left us with an inept legislative body whose divisions are along racial and ethnic lines, rather than political differences.

After the new system debuted in 1991, voters quickly tired of the supposed diversity and recognized the mediocrity of legislators whose basic qualification for office is ethnic pandering. In disgust, they imposed term limits on this new, improved, and politically correct structure.

This has had yet another negative impact, making the council a way station in the political careers of this group of mostly mediocre people. The model for this is Councilman John Liu, who substitutes a deluge of press releases for actual achievement, each carefully crafted to reflect the vision of a Balkanized city of ethnic agendas.

Despite the fact that the voters have elected a Republican in the last four mayoral elections, only two of the council’s 51 members are Republicans. The remaining 49 happily cede their power to one person, the council speaker, and collect a more than full-time salary for what is basically a part-time job.

The speaker, because of term limits, is forced to use that power to advance what has thus far been a quixotic quest to move to the other side of City Hall as mayor. If the incumbent mayor also must leave due to term limits, the speaker will be a cooperative partner, like Speakers Vallone and Quinn. If the mayor is up for re-election, the speaker will be an antagonistic foe, as was Speaker Miller.

This is the result of an excessive dose of reform. And the Legislature can easily become as ineffective as the council. As bad as state government has been, at least in Albany there has been partisan tension among the “three men in a room.” Imagine oneparty government there, where the only loyalty is to constituents in districts drawn narrowly by ethnicity.

Consider the situation of the residents of Port Chester, N.Y.

Port Chester is a working-class town in suburban Westchester, right on the Connecticut border. It has a population of about 28,000, much smaller than most New York City neighborhoods. It elects its town trustees “at large,” rather than by district, a reasonable system in an entity that small.

To put this into perspective, a single New York City Council district contains nearly six times as many people, about 160,000. But the U.S. Department of Justice is pressing this little town to divide itself into districts to insure the election of candidates favored by Hispanic residents, who have thus far been unsuccessful in electing their choices.

If the Justice Department takes the town to court and imposes such a district-based plan, it would set a particularly bad precedent. While it is true that over 40% of the town’s population is Hispanic, they represent only 3,000 of the town’s 14,000 registered voters. This is probably the reason why Hispanics haven’t yet met with electoral success.

But to divide up a tiny town in order to rig elections to insure that a certain group meets with electoral success is not the answer. Hispanics will undoubtedly begin to win elections in Port Chester as their numbers increase and as more become citizens, register, and turn out to vote.

It should be noted that if all or nearly all Hispanics had voted in recent elections, they easily could have elected their choices, since overall turnout was quite low. In other words, the Justice Department wants to do for them what they were unwilling to do for themselves.

Drawing districts by ethnicity is intrinsically anti-American. Creating a system of districts imposing a race-based solution compounds the error.

New York City elected a black mayor in 1989, when blacks represented only about a quarter of the population. In the Democratic primary that year, Mayor Dinkins defeated one of the most popular and effective mayors of all time, Edward Koch, and went on to defeat Rudolph Giuliani in the general election.

Mr. Dinkins was defeated four years later, not because he was black, but because voters perceived him to be a failure.

Surely if Mr. Dinkins could win in New York City, Hispanics or the candidates favored by Hispanics can be elected in Port Chester.

But everyone’s interests will be best served if every candidate has to compete for every vote, even the votes of those who belong to another race or ethnic group.

If Mr. Spitzer’s proposal is to substitute pandering for partisanship, we’re better off with things as they are.

A district where no one group predominates means that politicians will have to begin to do the unfamiliar: listen to the concerns of everyone.

© 2007 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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