Gerrymandering? Be careful what you wish for


 

Fifty years ago, The Bronx was home to four Congressional districts, neatly carved into identifiable quadrants: one district covered the northwest Bronx, another the southwest, one in the northeast and one in the southeastern portion of the borough. These districts averaged about 375,000 people, about half the number that you would find in a Congressional district today.

Of course, the same 435 representatives covered a nation that was smaller, and New York State’s share of the national pie was a lot bigger, the biggest in the nation. The Bronx was perhaps the most powerful political entity in the country, and probably got a little bit larger share of representation. This was before the days of a court decision that mandated a strict one-man/one vote policy, so districts were often disproportionately constituted with fewer residents (more power per voter) or more folks and somewhat less political clout.

Back then, all four Bronx representatives to Congress were white. Despite the status of the borough as an overwhelmingly Jewish stronghold then, only one of the four, Jacob Gilbert of the 22nd District in the southeast Bronx, was a Jew. Two men of Irish extraction, Charles A. Buckley and James Healey, represented the two districts in the west Bronx. These districts were largely Jewish, but for many years the levers of the Democratic Party machinery here were held by Irishmen. Buckley was also the Democratic Party leader, having succeeded the legendary Edward J. Flynn, an intimate of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who at one time led the national Democratic Party as well. The Bronx had clout.

An Italian-American, Paul Fino, held sway over the northeast Bronx’s 24th District. The remarkable thing about Fino, who passed away recently, was that he was a Republican. Yes, part of The Bronx had a Republican representing them in Washington. In fact, the borough had a vigorous Republican Party, which routinely elected legislators and judges. In 1961, the Borough of the Bronx actually elected a Republican, Joseph Periconi, as Borough President, although with the help of the now-defunct Liberal Party.

In terms of the national share of population, New York has since slipped quite a bit. The aforementioned court ruling on district size and the racial representation mandates of the Voting Rights Act has warped the redistricting process in new ways. No longer can a borough be neatly divided more or less along neighborhood lines.

There are those who are calling for non-partisan redistricting as if it were some sort of panacea. But such redistricting would then only take into account race and ethnicity. A sample of that type of outlook was the lines drawn by Common Cause, which saw little other than race in proposing their districts.

We reject this notion. Rigging districts to insure the election of people of one background or another, is still nothing more than denying voters the chance to elect someone of their own choosing, not the Balkanized dream slates of the social engineers. There is a flip side to this, as Democrats have learned, but are too wedded to racial pandering to try and correct. When you isolate groups who tend to vote Democratic in segregated districts, you also create largely white districts where the G.O.P. often wins. There are some who believe that this is why Republicans now control the House of Representatives.

If we would let a color-blind apolitical computer draw the lines, whose only mandate would be draw compact and contiguous districts respecting neighborhood and geographic lines and nothing more, we could sign onto such an endeavor. But gerrymandering for race instead of incumbency is un-American and just as bad as the political product we get now.

We, for example, would be loathe to sacrifice Bronx Congressmen Jose Serrano and Eliot Engel, with more than a half century of seniority between them and the influence that brings, for any of the current “impartial” schemes.

Someday we will elect state legislators and the representatives we send to Washington and City Hall purely for the content of their character, not the color of their skin. But until that day, we’d rather not sacrifice our awful system for an even more dangerous one where election results are determined by the accident of birth, not the achievements of life.

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