Cutting the Deck, Again

David Greenfield
Met Council CEO David Greenfield

David G. Greenfield is a Democratic former member of the New York City Council, who is currently CEO of the Met Council, America’s largest tzedakah. Greenfield, a political strategist who participated in the lobbying by Jewish leaders over the redistricting process in New York, spoke with Hamodia after the newly drawn lines were passed by the Legislature.

The new maps are available by clicking here.

Tell us a little about the background of how the redistricting works in New York and how we got to this point.

Redistricting on a federal, state, and city level is generally pretty consistent. And it’s generally pretty bizarre.

Voters have the opportunity to pick their elected officials every year. However, once every 10 years, the elected officials have the opportunity to pick their voters. And that’s really at the core of redistricting.

So for this once-in-ten-year redistricting cycle, there was a constitutional amendment that was passed in 2014 that essentially required that there be an independent redistricting commission. A lot of people worked on passing that, including every single good-government group. But at the end of the day, the commission was essentially set up to fail because you needed to have consensus between the Republicans and Democrats — and that’s just virtually impossible. Anyone who is a neutral observer of politics will tell you that Republicans and Democrats are just not really getting along.

So what ended up happening was that, by default, since the commission couldn’t agree on a redistricting map, the Legislature, along with the Governor, were able to pass their own lines.

The national implications of this are that New York has changed its district lines to elect more Democrats in Congress, and this was an important priority of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as well as the Governor, who was very clear that she would use her power to do this.

To be fair, it’s no different than what you see in Republican states. Republican governors and Republican legislatures draw their own lines — ones that are favorable to their parties as well.

It’s the unfortunate sausage-making of the political process that once every 10 years comes out in public.

What was the incentive for Democrats on the commission to come to any sort of agreement, knowing that if they don’t come to an agreement, the Legislature would just draw the lines to be favorable to Democrats?

The main incentive really is the courts. There’s always a possibility, and there has been a history of this in New York and in other states in the past, that the courts will frown on what they view as gerrymandering of districts. So there’s always the risk that by not cooperating with an independent commission, the courts could potentially invalidate the Democratic-approved lines. It generally happens more on a federal level than it does on the state and local level, but it’s always a possibility.

Do you see any chance that the court would strike down any of the New York maps, whether for Congressional, state Senate, or state Assembly districts?

The legislators who drew these have teams of lawyers who review it and try to follow the court precedent as best as they possibly can. So there definitely will be legal challenges. But nobody can predict accurately whether those challenges will be successful challenges

The 10th Congressional District, represented by Rep. Jerry Nadler, is jokingly being referred to as “jerrymandered.” It has an odd shape, and includes parts of Boro Park as well as the West Side of Manhattan. What do you think of that district’s lines, and how does it compare to that of the previous lines?

It’s not that much different than the previous one, it’s just that it’s thinner in some areas. The old district also connected the Upper West Side to Boro Park, two neighborhoods that seem to be far-flung.

Greenfield with New York City Mayor Eric Adams (R) and political activist Joel Eisdorfer, currently a senior advisor to Adams.

However, it’s not that much different from the old district, and it’s not much of a surprise. But I think that there are three issues at play that people have to understand.

The first is that there was public testimony in the redistricting process — including from Jewish leaders in Boro Park who actually said they want to be part of Congressman Nadler’s district. It’s partially because of the fact that he has a lot of seniority in Congress, so that was a strategic decision that they made. It’s like anything else. In a democracy, if you don’t vote, you don’t count. If you didn’t come and testify at the hearings, you didn’t have a say. The people who testified at the hearings were representing different groups, including many Chassidic groups from Boro Park, who testified in favor of remaining in Nadler’s district.

The second reason that it was drawn so tightly has less to do with Jerry Nadler, and more to do with the Nicole Malliotakis seat. [The seat, which covers Staten Island and portions of Brooklyn, is the only one in New York City currently held by a Republican.] They wanted to switch what is generally viewed as a Trump-supporting seat, into what is now a Biden-supporting seat. In order to do that, they had to carve into portions of the Democratic districts that were close to and part of Jerry’s seat. So this has less to do with protecting Jerry Nadler, who is viewed as a safe Member of Congress, than it is about making it more suitable for Max Rose, the Democrat who is challenging Malliotakis.

And the final thing is a point that is interesting and surprising and many people may not realize: Jerry is currently the only Jewish member of Congress in New York City. So the thinking over here is that you actually have Jewish constituencies — albeit a variety of different levels of observance — so you would connect the Jewish constituencies of Manhattan with the Jewish constituencies of Brooklyn.

Certainly, had things been different, I think that there would have been a movement to try to create an Orthodox Jewish congressional seat. However, the problem for that, and the reason I think people, including me, didn’t even try to do it this year, is that unfortunately, in the census, New York came up just 89 people short of keeping its 27 congressional seats. So, because 89 people didn’t fill out the census last year — the state of New York lost a congressional seat; now there are just 26. So, it didn’t seem practical to try and create a brand new Orthodox congressional seat when a seat was being eliminated, which is why people like myself, who are involved in political strategy, didn’t even try to make that happen.

You mentioned Malliotakis’ district being redrawn to include liberal Park Slope, to make things easier for Max Rose. But now there are rumors that Park Slope resident Bill de Blasio may challenge Rose in the Democratic primary.

I think that Malliotakis would love for de Blasio to run, because in Staten Island he is widely disliked. That’s also why, despite the rumors, I don’t think he will run.

In the state redistricting, one of your priorities was getting a majority-Orthodox seat in Rockland County. And Aron Wieder will be running for Assembly again, this time in the newly drawn 97th District seat with a real chance to win it.

New York City has traditionally been well represented by Orthodox Jews in the city and state levels. Rockland County, however, has not, and there have been a lot of political reasons for that, including the size, but the reality is that Rockland County has grown significantly in the last decade. And we in New York City decided to pool our resources with the folks in Rockland County, because we felt that the best opportunity for a newly created Orthodox seat would actually be in Rockland County. Even though that Assembly member would technically represent Monsey and the surrounding areas, it would actually benefit the entirety of the Jewish community, because obviously, many of the issues that are of concern to people in Monsey are the same issues that frum people care about in Boro Park, Williamsburg, Crown Heights, and the Five Towns.

Greenfield with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

We drove up to Monsey on several occasions, and I worked with our Brooklyn Assembly member Simcha Eichenstein and a variety of askanim including Reb Hersh Horowitz and Mona Montel, who is the Democratic leader of Ramapo. And we started mapping out a strategy for what it would take to essentially create this seat.

Currently, the Monsey population of roughly 90,000 frum people is split between three Assembly districts. So, because of the local politics, specifically the anti-Orthodox fervor that you see in Rockland County, it’s virtually impossible for an Orthodox candidate to win. So our goal was to try to bring as much of that community under one district. And we were successful, by combining two out of those three districts into one district, so that is now a majority-Orthodox seat.

That alone is not going to win the race. The community still needs to turn out and vote for the frum candidate. But in the past, the system was skewed against the frum community. Now the frum community has a real shot at actually winning this Monsey seat, and if the frum community turns out, they will win that seat.

The argument we made at the hearings, and behind the scenes with power brokers, was that the standard that is traditionally used throughout the country is to combine communities of interest. And these communities of interest were grossly split, so it only seemed fair that these communities of interest would be put together. And so we probably spent collectively a couple of hundred hours working on this project over the last year and, baruch Hashem, we were successful. And I think the success was because we brought together the local expertise of the Rockland County folks who have been doing this for decades, with the New York City folks who have a lot of relationships that come to bear. And I think the achdus is what made this a uniquely successful effort.

Besides that Monsey seat, how would you say the frum community made out in redistricting?

It was a mixed bag.

Southern Brooklyn did well. The state legislative seats in southern Brooklyn were actually tightened. For example, Senator Felder’s seat, which is what’s traditionally described as a “super Jewish district,” I’m describing now as a “super-duper Jewish district” because they dropped liberal areas like Kensington, Sunset Park, Victorian Flatbush and Ditmas Park, and added more of Gravesend. So Senator Felder is now representing just about the entire Sephardic community, as well as some Russian Jewish neighborhoods as well. So that’s an example of where things got better.

Greenfield with Rabbi Moshe Dovid Niederman of UJO and Pinny Ringel, an aide to former Mayor Bill de Blasio.

I think that where the challenge came was where you have incumbent elected officials, who, for whatever reasons, their own political reasons, don’t necessarily want the frum community to be empowered. One of those places was Williamsburg — there were some carve-outs over there. Williamsburg was hurt from a carve-out that took a key part of the Chassidic community out of their current Assembly seats. And, for example, in the Five Towns, I think that changing the Senate seat to a seat that is Queens/Far Rockaway-based, as opposed to Long Island-based, has impaired the influence of that community as well.

So there was a mixed bag and, quite frankly, a lot of it comes from the fact that very few people were involved in this process. The only people who really play in redistricting — as I said before, it’s political sausage-making — are the experts in the community. Who else is really going to take the time and effort to get involved in something that’s so esoteric? So we didn’t have that many folks who were involved in the process. Where you had folks who were involved in the process — like in southern Brooklyn, there were a lot of people involved; for example, Leon Goldberg was an askan who coordinated many meetings, and I attended many of his meetings, separate from the meetings that we did in Rockland — that’s where he saw results that were solid. But where you did not have folks actively involved in the redistricting process, you ended up with seats that were not better and I would say in some cases are slightly worse.

Regarding that “super-duper Jewish district.” If Felder’s seat is safe anyway, doesn’t it hurt the Orthodox community to take Orthodox people out of other districts where they may have had at least some influence, and put them into a district where the Orthodox already have a majority?

That’s definitely a fair point to the extent that Senator Felder is obviously a very popular senator who will win reelection. But when you look at a seat, you always want to look at the actual lines, and not just the person who’s currently there. You want to think longer-term as well, what the future might look like, to ensure the viability of that seat. For example, Senator Felder was facing a progressive challenger [Kaegan Mays-Williams] who probably does not even reside in the district anymore, based on the new lines.

When you look at these seats, it’s not just about who the current incumbent is, because elected officials come and go; they may move on to other jobs or they may retire. So you want to look at the integrity of that seat itself.

Also, that seat becomes important because you don’t want to have political “orphans” as far as representation is concerned. If you can take a big chunk of a community and put them into a district where they have a bloc vote, that’s great. But if you have 1,000 Orthodox Jews who are in a district of 250,000 people, they’re going to get lost and they’re not going to get the unique services that they need.

When I was in the City Council, I actually serviced a lot of my neighboring districts, because those frum constituents of other council members actually thought I was their council member. What was I going to say, “No, I won’t help you”? Of course, I’m happy to help people.

That was my view, but not everyone necessarily takes that view. You want to make sure that people who live in a district are getting serviced.

L-R: Greenfield, Councilman Kalman Yeger and Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein at a food distribution.

What can we expect to see from the New York City Council redistricting?

It’s a similarly political process, but 90% of the City Council is Democratic. Even the state Assembly, which is two-thirds Democratic, is not as Democratic as the City Council. So you’re not going to see as much around the partisan lines. There certainly will be an attempt to try to redistrict away one or two of the newly Republican seats. But in the City Council, a lot of it tends to really be more focused on ethnic representation — whether it’s the Asian, Hispanic, African-American, Orthodox Jewish or Russian community — I think you’ll see more of that and less partisanship as far as Republicans versus Democrats. But certainly it’s a very important process.

And, interestingly enough, the Council terms are normally four years. But because of the redistricting, this current Council term is only two years. They’re going to change the district lines, then there’s going to be a Council election next year. I don’t think we’re going to see massive changes in areas like Southern Brooklyn, but I do think that there will be some attempts in other parts of the city, like in Queens, to try to reclaim Republican seats for the Democratic side.

Any final comments?

The political work is not glamorous. In fact, it took me 20 years to become an expert in politics. But it’s critical for the future of the community. We saw, for example, during COVID, how our lack of representation hurt the frum community. People see clearly now how, if you have the right maps, you can have the right representation. And I think that it’s more important than ever, in this climate, where there’s an ascendancy of the very far Left, that we have frum people who are not just involved in government behind the scenes, like myself and other askanim, but also frum people who have the ability to get elected. That’s why I think that the Rockland seat is certainly one of the most significant political victories that we’ve had in the last 10 years. But the victory itself isn’t enough; we need everybody to register, and to go out and vote because ultimately, we can draw up seats, but if nobody votes, we’re not going to win those elections.

So the most important message to those reading this: make sure you’re registered to vote, and make sure to come out and that you vote in the next election. Especially the primary, on June 28, where most New York City races are decided; and on November 8 when the new Monsey seat will be decided along with the race for Governor.

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