Another legal battle is looming over county legislature district lines, because Bethlehem Democrats claim the new plan submitted to the court unnecessarily shifts lines within the town.
Albany County sent its proposed redistricting map on Tuesday, April 14, to Senior U.S. District Judge Lawrence Kahn, which creates a mandated fifth majority-minority district in the City of Albany. The plaintiffs, who had two weeks to respond to the proposal, sent a letter on Friday, April 17, urging Kahn to approve the remedial map. A contingent of Bethlehem Democrats though are contesting the new map is “an egregious and illegal effort” to protect incumbents through redrawing district lines within the town to eliminate primary opponents.
“They went beyond the mandate of the court in trying to fix this racial disparity,” said Daniel Coffey, second vice chairman of the Bethlehem Democratic Committee. “We don’t want to open Pandora’s box with this voter’s rights case, we just want the lines not redrawn in Bethlehem.”
Coffey, an attorney, is representing Jeffrey Kuhn, Charles Dawson Jr. and Pamela Robbins. Coffey asked the county and plaintiffs for consent to intervene in the lawsuit, but threatened to file a motion to intervene with the court if both parties did not grant the request.
“This extraordinary redistricting ordered by Judge Kahn was not a license for the legislative leaders to redraw lines in Bethlehem to eliminate primary opponents for their supporters,” Kuhn said in an email. “The misuse of the judge’s order to redraw lines in Bethlehem was classic ‘Albany Style’ politics designed to protect the power and positions of the same legislative leaders responsible for violating the (voters) in the first place.”
The new maps place Kuhn, who formally announced April 1 his intention to primary incumbent Democrat Tom Cotrofeld Jr., into a new legislative district. Instead of Kuhn residing in the 34th District, he was moved into the 35th District, which is Dawson’s district. Kuhn and Dawson where planning to campaign together under the “reform Democrats” banner of the local Democratic Party.
Robbins was also moved to a new legislative district under the proposed plan, shifting from the 9th District, primarily in Albany, to the 33rd District spanning the towns of Bethlehem and New Scotland, along with all of the Village of Voorheesville.
Democrat Herbert Reilly Jr., of Voorheesville, has represented the 33rd District for 15 years. Robbins has not announced plans to challenge incumbent District 9 Democrat Justin Corcoran, who lives in Albany.
Coffey said Robbins is “very active in Bethlehem Democratic politics” and there is “a history” with Corcoran.
“If you look at the line around Jeff’s and Pam’s house, it is just a little squiggly line that has nothing to do with Albany,” said Coffey.
Peter Barber, a consultant the county hired to draw the new map, said in order to maintain the ideal population of 7,800 people per district the new map had to take residents from neighboring districts.
”The decision was made by the commission to try to minimize as much as possible any situation to any other districts,” said Barber. “We also made note at that time that there would be a somewhat ripple effects in Bethlehem and New Scotland.”
Barber said the criterion to keep challengers in the same district is “strange,” but claims he was not aware of where Kuhn lived when drawing new lines.
“I didn’t know where he lived and, quite frankly, even if I did it would not have made a difference anyway,” said Barber. “I didn’t even know what he looked like until I saw his picture in the newspaper.”
Kuhn contested Barber’s claim that the new lines were not politically motivated, calling it an “extremely dubious” assertion.
“Not a single sitting legislator anywhere in the county was moved out of their district, but I just happened to be moved out of the district where I had announced to run?” said Kuhn.
Barber contested the new map is consistent with Bethlehem’s comprehensive plan regarding the identification of hamlets.
“You can’t please everybody,” Barber said. “It doesn’t stop (Kuhn) from running.”
Kuhn said he would not run if the lines remain as proposed since he would then need to primary Dawson, but he added it “isn’t about me.”
“This is about Bethlehem Democrats taking a leading role in bringing good-government reforms to Albany County,” said Kuhn. “If the maps remain unchanged, another very strong progressive Democrat will still run in the 34th District.”
Deputy Minority Leader Christine Benedict, one of two GOP members sitting on the seven-member Redistricting Commission, noted the proposal Republican representatives forwarded did not shift any legislative district lines outside of the city while creating a fifth minority-majority district.
“There is no reason why any other district needs to be effected except for those in the City of Albany,” said Benedict. “Obviously they had another agenda, which was to bring it out into the Bethlehem area.”
Benedict, along with fellow GOP commission member Rachel Bledi, voted in favor of the map submitted to the court. “We ended up voting for it, of course, just to get something in front of the judge,” said Benedict.
Deputy Majority Leader Sean Ward, chairman of the commission, declined to comment on claims from Bethlehem Democrats due to “potential pending litigation.” Ward expressed confidence the new maps “meet the court’s mandate” to create a fifth MMD.
“I am proud of the work done during a short time frame by the Redistricting Committee, legislative staff and our consultants,” Ward said in an email. “We are very happy that the plan was unanimously approved by the Redistricting Committee, all minority members of the legislature and most importantly the plaintiffs themselves. We look forward to final approval by the Court so that we can all move forward to the election cycle starting with June petitions.”
However, Coffey believed the court would side with the concerns the contingent of Bethlehem Democrats raised
“I think judge Kahn is going to be quite upset that the parties at be went beyond the scope of his directive and did some gerrymandering outside the scope of the lawsuit,” said Coffey.
Kahn had not made a ruling on the new maps before The Spotlight went to press Monday morning, April 20.