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Roadmap of Decline

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Roadmap of Decline

Squabbles over congressional redistricting reflect New York State’s waning political influence. May 18, 2022
New York
Politics and law

The politics of New York State have been in turmoil since late March, when the courts threw out “undeniably politically gerrymandered” redistricting maps that Democrats had drawn. A new set of maps from a court-appointed special master will transform the state’s congressional delegation, forcing longtime incumbent Democrats Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney to run against each other for a Manhattan seat, and likely requiring Hakeem Jeffries to run for Congress outside of the district where he lives. Democrats slammed the new maps: Nadler claimed they violate the state constitution, Jeffries said they “would make Jim Crow blush,” and party officials complained that the judge didn’t give them a chance to make revisions. But the rejected maps already represented a second attempt at redistricting, after an independent state commission failed to produce a plan, and the congressional primaries have been pushed back from June to August as a result.

Why do New York Democrats find themselves fighting to divide a shrinking electoral pie among incumbents? Because their state has experienced an economic decline that has slowed population growth and propelled outmigration, taking congressional seats away and reducing the state’s once-formidable political influence in Washington. Given that Democrats have dominated Albany for decades, they have few others to blame for the state’s—and their own—political decline.

November’s election will be the first to reflect the 2020 Census, which showed that, yet again, New York grew at a slower rate than the country as a whole. As a result, the state lost another congressional seat for the eighth consecutive Census survey. Since the end of World War II, New York’s House of Representatives delegation has shrunk to 26 from 45. No other state has lost so many seats. The Empire State delegation is now the size it was in 1823—when the population of the U.S. was just 9.6 million and the House had a mere 221 members.

Still, state politicians might count themselves lucky. The 2020 count took place before sweeping demographic changes brought on by Covid lockdowns and Albany’s mismanagement of the pandemic, which led to large population losses for the state. The latest assessments put New York’s population at about 19.4 million, well below the 2020 Census count of 20.2 million. At that rate, New York might have forfeited three or even four House seats, as it did after the 1980 Census, which showed that New York’s population had declined 678,000 in the previous decade, led by large losses in an increasingly chaotic, financially pressed New York City.

The districts that have disappeared in recent years held some significant history. The 13th president, Millard Fillmore, got his start as the first representative of the state’s 32nd congressional district, formed after the census of 1830. Lewis K. Rockefeller served as a representative of the district disappearing this year, the 27th, as did Katherine St. George, a cousin of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The fourth Hamilton Fish to serve in Congress once represented the recently departed 28th district; his great-grandfather, the first Hamilton Fish, served in Congress, as governor of New York, and as secretary of state under Ulysses S. Grant. Some 112 New Yorkers—including Fillmore and Horace Greeley—served in the House of Representatives over two decades as members of the Whig Party, which emerged as a significant political force in opposition to Andrew Jackson until it collapsed just before the Civil War. Thirty-eight of those New York Whigs served as representatives from congressional districts that no longer exist.

New York’s political fortunes have waned as other states have raced past it. At the turn of the twentieth century, Florida had two members of the House of Representatives, California seven, Texas 13, and New York 34. Today, Florida has 28, California 52 (though the Golden State lost a congressional seat for the first time), Texas 38, and New York 26.

New York’s political fall has been painful for state Democrats, leading to intra-party squabbling and a loss of influence nationally. Why, then, do so many continue to embrace a politics of decline—policies that relentlessly yield low economic growth and outmigration? The best answer is that those in power can’t admit to the disastrous consequences of their agenda without opening the door to others who might insist upon change. New York Democrats would apparently rather fight over scraps than admit that the state they govern has deteriorated.

Photo: Kirkikis/iStock

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