BORDERLINE PERSONALITIES: Finding Our Way After Redistricting

By Reuvain Borchardt

David G. Greenfield, a Democratic former New York City councilman who was involved in efforts to empower the frum communities in New York during redistricting, spoke with Hamodia on Sunday, two days after release of the final district maps for New York’s congressional and state senate seats, based on the 2020 census.

The maps were to have been drawn by an independent redistricting commission split between Democrats and Republicans, per a 2014 constitutional amendment. But when the commission couldn’t reach an agreement, the Democratic-dominated legislature published its own maps, which critics say were gerrymandered in favor of Democrats. Those maps were tossed by the courts, and the court appointed an election map expert, Prof. Jonathan Cervas of Carnegie Mellon University, as a special master to draw new maps, which were released Friday.

So it appears that the long redistricting battle is finally over. How do these final maps break down?

This map is more favorable toward the Republicans than the original maps. For example, right off the bat, Nicole Malliotakis regains front-runner status for her seat, the only Republican-held Congressional seat in New York City. And that’s because these were more objective than the original maps that were proposed. Overall, there’s no question that these are improved maps as far as Republicans are concerned, and New York races will now likely have an impact on which party controls the House of Representatives next year.

Currently, New York has 19 seats held by Democrats and 8 held by Republicans. The maps drawn by the Democratic Legislature would have likely reduced Republicans to four seats. The maps drawn by the special master appear to give Republicans at least five safe seats, and several more seats will now be competitive between Republicans and Democrats.

Probably the biggest news for the Orthodox Jewish community is the 9th District, which now includes Flatbush, Crown Heights, and a chunk of Boro Park, giving the community a sizable portion, though still a minority, of a Congressional district.

That was a major improvement and a big victory for the frum community.

There was broad frustration that the original maps broke up every segment of the community into a different Congressional district.

Congressional districts, on average, have around 800,000 seats. So, if you have 30,000 or 40,000 frum Jews in a district, you’re not going to be able to have an impact.

Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein and Councilman Kalman Yeger, along with Bobov and Agudah, wrote a letter to the special master outlining two options that would empower the frum community, and the special master took one of them. That’s a significant victory — that most of the frum community of southern Brooklyn, which includes Crown Heights, all of Flatbush, and most of Boro Park, are now in one district. And that’s approximately a third of the vote of that district. Which means that, for the first time in New York, this community will be able to impact a Congressional seat. The Orthodox community never had that kind of influence before. Obviously, it remains to be seen what the community does with that influence. But the idea that the community now has the ability to actually influence a Congressional seat is certainly very exciting.

Yvette Clarke is the incumbent in the 9th district. Do you think a frum candidate can beat her?

I don’t know of any frum people right now that are looking to run against the incumbent.

But every elected official is responsive to their constituencies, and Congressmember Clarke now has a much larger frum constituency, representing more frum Jews than any other Congressmember in the United States. She has an obligation to have some serious conversations with the community. So I’m going to give her the opportunity to have those important conversations.

Are you considering running?

It’s an honor to be considered, but I am grateful for the opportunity to serve the community as CEO of Met Council on Jewish Poverty, so I will not be running for Congress.

From your comment that Clarke “has an obligation to have some serious conversations with the community,” it seems you believe she has not paid much attention to the community.

She had a smaller portion of the frum community — just Crown Heights and a sliver of Flatbush; now it is much larger — so it’s fair to say that the frum community was not her priority.

The new map flips approximately 175,000 people from Park Slope, Prospect Heights, and other very liberal areas, and replaces them with the frum communities of Flatbush, Gravesend, Kensington, a majority of Boro Park and parts of Marine Park as well. So the district overall is a lot more moderate than it was before, based on these new voters.

I think there are going to be a lot of conversations within the community, and with Congressmember Clarke about what that future holds.

When we spoke a few weeks ago, after the Legislature released its maps, you said that the frum community hadn’t really lobbied to unite the frum neighborhoods in South Brooklyn. But now, after the special master was appointed and released his own preliminary map, this letter was sent by Eichenstein and Yeger and various Orthodox groups. Why do you believe they only did this now? Is it because they figured they had no chance in a Democratic-controlled Legislature, because the Orthodox are right-wing politically — and only figured they had a chance to make this happen after the special master was appointed?

Part of the frustration — and, as you know, I was involved in that effort as well — was when the lines came out, they were really shocking, because the community was put into five separate districts. I think they were worse than anyone had anticipated. They completely diluted the power of the Orthodox community. We spent the time and effort and money to hire attorneys and experts to engage the judge and special master. There definitely was a sense that we got a fair hearing from someone who’s impartial. And the special master and judge gave those community leaders and elected officials almost everything they asked for, with the exception of around 20% of Boro Park that’s still in the 10th District, and that appears to simply be based on the fact that there was too much population there for them to squeeze into one district. So, by and large, I would say that the community’s political power is significantly improved than where we were a few weeks ago after the Legislature released its map, and even better than where we were last year.

Having the bulk of the community in one district will give the community influence. How that influence is used remains to be seen, but we’re definitely in a better position right now.

The 10th District — which used to have the whole Boro Park but now will have the small portion of it that’s not in the new 9th — has been represented by Jerrold Nadler. But now he’s been cut out of it. Bill de Blasio is one of those who has announced his candidacy for that district now, and it seems that just about every person who’s ever been a New York politician is rumored to be running as well for that seat. Who do you think has the best chance of winning that district?

For now, it’s a race between Bill de Blasio and Mondaire Jones. They’re the most visible candidates in the race. They start out with significant name advantage and media attention.

Obviously, you never know who’s running until petitioning ends in about 20 days. But for now, Bill de Blasio as the former Mayor, and Mondaire Jones as a sitting Congressmember with a lot of money in the bank — even though he currently represents a district in Westchester and Rockland Counties — are going to be the two biggest names in the race.

It’ll be interesting to see how that shapes up. The frum community still has a few thousand votes in that district. 

Prof. Jonathan Cervas of Carnegie Mellon University, the court-appointed special master in charge of drawing New York’s new Congressional and state Senate maps. (Carnegie Mellon)

Congressmembers don’t have to live in the district in which they run. Mondaire Jones is running in the 10th District to avoid a conflict with a fellow incumbent Democrat in the new district in Westchester/Rockland. Can he win the 10th District in Brooklyn despite not really having ties to the district?

With so many candidates potentially running, part of this race will be about who can get the most attention. As a sitting Congressmember he will get a lot of attention. And he has a lot of resources. So right off the bat, that gives him a lot of viability — people will pay attention to him in this race.

The challenge for all candidates is getting recognized. De Blasio and Jones have an advantage based on their backstories — a former Mayor and a sitting Congressman.

The 11th District — which includes Staten Island and a portion of South Brooklyn — looks much more favorable for a Republican now than it did under the Democratic Legislature’s plan. Now it includes the more conservative Bensonhurst area, whereas under the Legislature’s plan it would have instead included liberal Park Slope. So the Republican incumbent, Nicole Malliotakis, appears to be safe. Do you believe her Democratic challenger, Max Rose, will drop out now?

I don’t think Max will drop out. At this point, he’s very committed to the race. In politics you never know what can happen. I always say that elections are a snapshot in time. You can be popular on election day and unpopular a day before or a day after. I think that’s why he’ll stay in the race, and that it’ll still be a competitive race, but certainly Nicole has the edge based on the new makeup of the district that overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump.

The most famous, or infamous, element of the new district maps are that the Upper East Side and Upper West Side of Manhattan, instead of being split between the 12th and 10th Districts, respectively, will now be in the new 12th District, with two longtime Democrats, Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney, running against each other. What do you make of that decision by the special master to put them into one district?

What’s most interesting is the special master went out of his way to say that he believes it’s legitimate to split Manhattan between uptown and downtown rather than east side and west side.

It’s going to be an epic battle. Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney are both titans of the Democratic Party. No doubt about that. And they may not be the only candidates in the race — Suraj Patel, an outsider reformer, is still potentially running. We’ll see how he’ll impact the race as well. There’s no doubt that this is going to be the most closely watched Democratic primary in America.

The Congressional map is getting the most publicity, but the special master also drew a new state Senate map. How does the party breakdown look there?

The Republicans have a fighting chance at taking back the state Senate. In the past they had no chance.

We’re going to see how that shakes out. The primaries will be run in August, then the general election in November. It will depend on the politics of how things go this summer — on issues like the economy, inflation, public safety. That will impact how voters decide which party to stick with in November.

Since a judge tossed the Legislature-constructed Congressional and state Senate lines, and they had to be redrawn by the special master, the primaries for Congress and the state Senate will be in August, while all other New York primaries will be in June as previously scheduled. What do you think of that? Should they move them all to August, or are you fine with split primaries?

At this point, it’s too late to move the other primaries to August.

Having multiple elections is not good for democracy because it diminishes voter participation. But at this point, it’s done.

We just have to make sure that we turn out — and even those of us who plan on being upstate for the summer, we have to make sure that we’re registered and we’re voting absentee.

I think it’s more important than ever that the community is heard — the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been before. Whether it comes to issues like rising antisemitism or government regulation of yeshivos, or just general quality of life issues like crime and public safety, there are major issues that are being decided this year, and we need to make sure that our community is represented. I would encourage everybody, make sure that you register — if you live in New York City, register as a Democrat, because that’s where the action is — and if you’re going to be out of town when the primaries are held, at the end of June and end of August, go online and request an absentee ballot, which you’re legally entitled to. We’ve seen how recent elections have been swung on absentee ballots. It would be sad if you forgot to vote and a candidate who doesn’t respect the community won.

Finally, we had this whole mess with the redistricting going through the independent commission, then the Legislature, the courts, and now the special master. What effect do you think this will have going forward? How may things change following the 2030 census?

Ten years is a long time. I remember that 10 years ago, everybody said the system is going to change and we’re going to have free and fair redistricting. That did not happen. I’m hoping that there will be a lesson learned, that compromise is the best way. There should have been a compromise between Republicans and Democrats. But that didn’t happen this time. Both sides dug in their heels, and we ended up with a situation which was quite frankly chaotic, and the people didn’t have a say in the process. Hopefully, common sense will prevail in the future. But in politics, hoping that common sense will prevail is just that — a hope.

rborchardt@hamodia.com

Below is the letter sent by Orthodox officials to the special master and judge overseeing new York’s redistricting

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