Jeffries Fights New York District Maps: ‘Enough to Make Jim Crow Blush’

Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the second-highest-ranking Black lawmaker in Congress, has launched an aggressive effort to discredit a proposed congressional map that would divide historically Black neighborhoods in New York, likening its configurations to Jim Crow tactics.

Mr. Jeffries is spending tens of thousands of dollars on digital advertising as part of a scorched-earth campaign to try to stop New York’s courts from making the new map final without changes later this week.

As construed, the map would split Bedford-Stuyvesant in central Brooklyn into two districts and Co-Op City in the Bronx into three, for example, while placing Black incumbents in the same districts — changes that Mr. Jeffries argues violate the State Constitution.

“We find ourselves in an all-hands-on-deck moment,” Mr. Jeffries, a Brooklyn Democrat, said in an interview on Thursday. In the most recent ad, he says the changes took “a sledgehammer to Black districts. It’s enough to make Jim Crow blush.”

Mr. Jeffries may be laying the groundwork for an eventual legal challenge, but his more immediate aim was to pressure Jonathan R. Cervas, New York’s court-appointed special master, to change congressional and State Senate maps that he first proposed on Monday before he presents final plans to a state court judge for approval on Friday.

The stakes could scarcely be higher. After New York’s highest court struck down Democrat-friendly maps drawn by the State Legislature as unconstitutional last month, the judges have vested near total power in Mr. Cervas, a postdoctoral fellow from Carnegie Mellon, to lay lines that will govern elections for a decade to come.

Mr. Cervas’s initial proposal unwound a map gerrymandered by the Democratic-led State Legislature, creating new pickup opportunities for Republicans. But it also significantly altered the shapes of districts in New York City — carefully drawn a decade earlier by another court — that reflected a patchwork of racial, geographic and economic divides.

What to Know About Redistricting

  • Redistricting, Explained: Here are some answers to your most pressing questions about the process that is reshaping American politics.
  • Understand Gerrymandering: Can you gerrymander your party to power? Try to draw your own districts in this imaginary state.
  • Killing Competition: The number of competitive districts is dropping, as both parties use redistricting to draw themselves into safe seats.
  • Deepening Divides: As political mapmakers create lopsided new district lines, the already polarized parties are being pulled even farther apart.

Mr. Jeffries was far from alone in lodging last-ditch appeals. The court was inundated with hundreds of comments suggesting revisions from Democrats and Republicans alike — from party lawyers pressing for more politically favorable lines to an analysis of the differences between Jewish families on the East and West Sides of Manhattan.

A broad coalition of public interest and minority advocacy groups told Mr. Cervas this week that his changes would risk diluting the power of historically marginalized communities. They included Common Cause New York and the United Map Coalition, an influential group of Latino, Black and Asian American legal groups.

The proposed map would divide Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights and Brownsville — culturally significant Black communities in Brooklyn — between the 8th and 9th Congressional Districts. Each neighborhood currently falls in one or the other.

The northeast Bronx, another predominantly Black area that includes Co-Op City and falls within Representative Jamaal Bowman’s district, would be split among three different districts.

The groups have raised similar concerns about Mr. Cervas’s proposal to separate Manhattan’s Chinatown and Sunset Park, home to large Asian American populations, into two districts for the first time in decades. Other Jewish groups have made related appeals for their community in Brooklyn.

Most of the changes are likely to have little impact on the partisan makeup of the districts, which are safely Democratic. But Lurie Daniel Favors, the executive director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, said that cutting through existing communities would further dilute the political power of historically marginalized groups.

“Now, when Bedford-Stuyvesant wants to organize and petition at the congressional level, they have to split their efforts and go to two separate representatives,” she said.

The maps would also push four of the state’s seven Black representatives into two districts, forcing them to compete with one another or run in a district where they do not live. Under the special master’s plan, Mr. Jeffries and Representative Yvette Clark would live in the same central Brooklyn district, and Mr. Bowman and Mondaire Jones would reside in the same Westchester County seat.

How U.S. Redistricting Works

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What is redistricting? It’s the redrawing of the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts. It happens every 10 years, after the census, to reflect changes in population.

Why is it important this year? With an extremely slim Democratic margin in the House of Representatives, simply redrawing maps in a few key states could determine control of Congress in 2022.

How does it work? The census dictates how many seats in Congress each state will get. Mapmakers then work to ensure that a state’s districts all have roughly the same number of residents, to ensure equal representation in the House.

Who draws the new maps? Each state has its own process. Eleven states leave the mapmaking to an outside panel. But most — 39 states — have state lawmakers draw the new maps for Congress.

If state legislators can draw their own districts, won’t they be biased? Yes. Partisan mapmakers often move district lines — subtly or egregiously — to cluster voters in a way that advances a political goal. This is called gerrymandering.

What is gerrymandering? It refers to the intentional distortion of district maps to give one party an advantage. While all districts must have roughly the same population, mapmakers can make subjective decisions to create a partisan tilt.

Is gerrymandering legal? Yes and no. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal courts have no role to play in blocking partisan gerrymanders. However, the court left intact parts of the Voting Rights Act that prohibit racial or ethnic gerrymandering.

Want to know more about redistricting and gerrymandering? Times reporters answer your most pressing questions here.

“It’s another slap in the face for Black people,” said Mr. Bowman, whose district would see its Black voting-age population fall from about 30 percent to 21 percent under the new maps.

Mr. Cervas has not explained why he drew the lines as he did. He declined to comment on the maps on Thursday, but said that his team was “reviewing every single comment that has been submitted to the court.”

Language amended to the New York Constitution in 2014 presents mapmakers with a set of competing directives. It says districts cannot be drawn to discourage competition or favor a particular candidate or party. It also instructs line drawers to “consider the maintenance of cores of existing districts” and “communities of interest.”

Democrats like Mr. Jeffries pointed to those directives on Thursday, arguing that in a drive to boost the competitiveness of seats across the state, Mr. Cervas had chopped up the cores of some existing districts or communities of interest. Public interest and civil rights groups were exploring the possibility of legally challenging the maps if the final versions did not address their concerns.

“We are prepared to do everything necessary under the law to right the wrong that has been visited upon communities of color,” Mr. Jeffries said.

But legal experts said it could be difficult to convince a judge given the Constitution’s conflicting requirements.

“What they are arguing for is a reasonable outcome, but I don’t know that where the special master is is not also a reasonable choice,” said Michael Li, senior counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

“I’m not sure anyone so far has stated clear-cut legal grounds” to prove otherwise, he added.

Republicans who challenged the Democratic congressional maps largely opposed the changes in Brooklyn and the Bronx in their own letter to the court late Thursday. They have complained that Mr. Cervas did not go far enough in unwinding Democrats’ attempted gerrymander, arguing that he produced a congressional map that still tilts too far left.

Meanwhile, new legal cases continue to spin off from New York’s redistricting saga.

The League of Women Voters of New York State filed a lawsuit in federal court in Manhattan late Wednesday seeking to delay the June 28 primaries for governor and other statewide offices and reopen the petitioning process based on the newly drawn congressional districts. Doing so would allow new candidates the chance to join the Democratic and Republican primary fields, and a plaintiff in the suit specifically mentions one possibility: former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

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