Buffalo Community Activists Demonstrate How to Fight Gerrymandering

Bbuffalo, New YorkA coalition of community activists here have once again thrown a wrench into the political workings of this city.

It’s not quite as stunning a rebellion as the one that helped Democratic socialist India Walton, in her first run for office, beat a four-term incumbent mayor in last summer’s Democratic primary.

But it’s a lot of the same people, a lot of the same energy. And community activists elsewhere would do well to examine what is happening here.

The current uprising has to do with redistricting the city’s Common Council to conform to 2020 U.S. Census figures, which showed Buffalo was growing in population for the first time since 1950.

Redistricting is not a sexy subject. It’s wacky at best, involving complicated formulas and tests for compactness, population gap, and racial balance. At worst, it’s corrupt – an opportunity for once-in-a-decade deals between politicians seeking to protect themselves and their allies from challengers.

Eleven years ago, when Buffalo was still losing population, two councilmen (at the time, all city council members in the city were male, as they are today) reached such an agreement. , with the approval of their fellow legislators.

The longtime representative of an East Side district that had been hemorrhaging for decades needed to add voters to his district, preferably white voters. The Common Council president, a black pastor, had a few he was happy to lose. Additionally, the pastor lived in a waterfront condominium outside of the district he represented.

So in 2011, the council redesigned these two neighborhoods, connecting a strip of depopulated, largely black East Side with a densely populated, mostly white West Side neighborhood, via one-block corridors, including the one tended to attach the condominium of the pastor. to his neighborhood.

You don’t need to know Buffalo or its neighborhoods to look at this map and recognize a textbook case of gerrymandering:

The light blue central district is Ellicott, represented by council chairman Darius Pridgen. The Fauvist district that surrounds it is Fillmore, represented at the time by David Franczyk.

Franczyk has since retired. Pridgen no longer lives in that waterfront condo. The political foundations of this agreement have disappeared.

And yet, when a redistricting commission set up by the council earlier this year unveiled its proposed new map in May, there were few changes. Fillmore still looked like a bird of prey, wings spread wide, dipping into the sky; The Ellicott District, while shedding its waterfront annex, continued to sport strange peninsulas.

It was an incumbent protection proposal, designed to keep councilors in the districts they know, with the voters they know, for the next 10 years, and specifically next year, when the nine councilors are to stand for re-election. He retains the West Side home of Franczyk’s successor, Mitch Nowakowski, in the Fillmore district.

It’s not unique to Buffalo. Across the country, where legislators are leading the redistricting process, the results tend to go first to incumbents, then to communities. And, no doubt, the bones of many long irrelevant political agreements are buried in the legislative maps of other cities.

“Guided by the dead hand of the past,” as one local election lawyer put it, encouraging Buffalo city councilors to go back to the drawing board.

But what happened here next is unusual. Everywhere. And maybe it is worth learning.

The council-appointed commission held a public hearing on the evening of May 18, four days after a teenage white supremacist murdered 10 black people at a supermarket on the East Side (Ellicott district, if you’re wondering) . Two members of the public were present. Only one spoke, proclaiming that the commission’s proposal was “a great map” because it brought his neighborhood club together in one district. It was split in two in 2011.

The person who did not speak was Dr. Russell Weaver, a data geographer at Cornell University’s International Labor Relations School. Weaver was formerly on the legislative staff of the Buffalo Common Council. He sat on the 2011 redistricting commission that produced the gerrymandered map perpetuated by the proposal he had just seen. He had been the only one to vote against.

So Weaver went home, started up his computers, and started drawing maps. Then he started posting his work on Twitter. He shared the criteria he used: compactness, meaning a minimum of odd shapes and protrusions; keep neighborhoods, as defined by city planners for political purposes, intact; promote racial equity. He shared accurate census data to show what he was doing.

His efforts were quickly encouraged and amplified by Our City Action Buffalo, a coalition of activists deeply involved in Walton’s mayoral campaign last year. Our City Action filled a public audience on June 28 with speakers, more than 100 of them. All opposed the council redistricting plan, which had been developed behind closed doors without any input from the public. All supported the alternative redistricting plan created by Weaver and promoted by Our City Action.

Many were angry that the first public hearing took place when the city was reeling from a tragedy, and the second on the day of a primary election.

“It tells us everything we need to know about how little respect or value they place on our contribution,” said Harper Bishop, an executive with Our City Action. “As their constituents, we – everyday Buffaloians – should be informed, engaged and encouraged to participate…but they don’t even pretend to listen.”

No one defended the council’s preferred plan, not even the councillors, who looked miserable under the deluge of criticism.

The reproaches were brutal and incessant. The May 18 commission hearing lasted eight minutes. The June 28 council hearing lasted two and a half hours.

Faced with this unexpected rebellion, the council chooses to go ahead. Two days after the brutal public hearing, he announced a special session on Friday morning July 1 to adopt his preferred plan.

But Our City Action shamed, threatened and cajoled, flooding members’ offices with phone calls and emails, until – in the middle of a press conference on the hotel steps of city ​​where activists denounced the deafness of members – the council canceled the Friday meeting.

“The Board has decided to delay this meeting to allow more time to review and review the details associated with the proposed maps and public comment,” Pridgen, the Board’s chairman, said in a statement. “We will reschedule this meeting at a future date to be determined.”

The extraordinary session has not been postponed. No new public hearings have been announced. Council members did not address the issue at last week’s Legislation Committee meeting, where their preferred plan was tabled.

Here’s the part communities in other cities might pay attention to: As the council simmered in silence, it was a point for activists, but hardly a match. Our municipal action therefore continued to move forward.

Over the Independence Day long weekend, activists processed feedback generated by Weaver’s alternative redistricting proposal, including responses from city councillors. Then they revised the proposal accordingly.

In other words, Our City Action has set itself the role of a truly independent, citizen-led redistricting commission.

With the council lost at sea, community activists grabbed the helm.

Weaver’s first plan was better than the council’s in terms of compactness, keeping neighborhoods intact, and promoting racial equity. The revised plan is even better. Again, no need to know Buffalo or its surroundings. The new map just looks better:

According to the city charter, the council must pass a redistricting plan by the end of this month. The mayor will then hold a public hearing of his own, before transmitting the adopted plan to the departmental council of elections. The map adopted will determine the constituencies that candidates will run for next year.

Last Friday afternoon, July 8, the council announced that it would meet and vote on its redistricting proposal in the afternoon of July 12. Once again, the Our City Action coalition rushed over the weekend to mount resistance: press conferences, telephone and e-mail campaigns, media appearances.

It’s likely the council will ignore the insurgency, adopt its preferred redistricting plan (or something close to it), then go on vacation during the council recess in August, leaving staffers to answer phone calls and emails. angry mails. They may have lost the helm for a while, but it’s still their ship.

And remember, India Walton shocked regional politics by winning the Democratic primary last June. But she lost in the November general election. The powers of entrenchment are powerful.

However, advisers know that potential challengers are ready to beat them around the ears with this issue in next year’s election cycle. These challengers will have support. The Buffalo NewsThe editorial board – usually no friend of progressive activists – lambasted the board and wholeheartedly endorsed the Our City Action alternative. More than 800 people signed a petition in his favour. Block clubs and neighborhood trade associations have also taken the plunge.

Last week, Weaver appeared on a weekly radio show hosted by Partnership for the Public Good, a good government group, to discuss the Our City action plan. He was joined by Jillian Hanesworth, the city’s first designated Poet Laureate.

Hanesworth made the threat explicit.

“We have to take note of the priorities of our elected officials,” she said. “And if we don’t fall on the list, they have to leave.”

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