ALBANY COUNTY For the third consecutive decade, the Albany County Legislature faced federal sanction for the way it drew new legislative district lines following the 2010 federal census. After years of contentious argument and several failed attempts at resolving a lawsuit that was filed in 2011 by minority members of the community and the regional NAACP chapter, Senior U.S. District Judge Lawrence Kahn ruled in March that the disputed districts violated the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, diluting the voting strength of black voters by packing them into districts already dominated by minorities.
In his 81-page decision, Kahn cited “the persistent presence of racial bloc voting, the continued low levels of minority-preferred candidate success, the lingering effects of past discrimination that continue to inhibit minority participation in the electoral process, and the questionable manner in which the County conducted its redistricting process.” He ordered that the lines be redrawn, and approved, before Albany County would be permitted to move ahead with 2015 county elections.
At the heart of the issue was the number of minority-majority districts (MMDs), in which minority citizens represent a majority of voters-essentially ensuring that minorities have the opportunity to elect candidates representing their interests to the legislative body. While the black population in Albany County increased by more than 35 percent between 2000 and 2010, the number of MMDs remained the same-four of the 39 districts. Plaintiffs argued that the number should have been increased to five.
Following Kahn’s decision, Majority Leader Frank Commisso (D-11) announced the formation of a redistricting committee composed of five Democrats and two Republicans, headed by Deputy Majority Leader Sean Ward (D-16) of Green Island. The new maps, which carved out a fifth MMD in Albany’s east side, were approved by Kahn on April 21.
The new MMD, the 6th legislative district, was ultimately won by the only white candidate in the race, much to the chagrin of minority community leaders. Democrat Sam Fein defeated opponent Danielle Hille by just 58 votes. Dissatisfaction with the redistricting process caused many to call for an independent redistricting body and contributed to the formation of a reform coalition within the Democratic caucus.
In September, the judge ordered Albany County to pay $1.2 million in plaintiff’s legal costs, significantly less than the $6.9 million originally sought by their lawyers.
In November, Albany County voters denied charter changes that would keep the redistricting process within the legislature, but no legislation has yet been passed to provide for the formation of an independent body either.
Commisso told SpotlightNews in early December that voters elect legislators to do the job of redistricting and that any independent committee made up of members appointed by the legislature would inevitably have political allegiances, therefore undermining the whole point of an independent body.
Others like Joe O’Brien (D-25), who was narrowly defeated in a recent challenge to Commisso for the position of Majority Leader (the only challenge Commisso has faced since taking the position in the early 90s), believe that there are ways to establish a credible independent commission. “I would be in favor of having minority representation, someone from the NAACP,” said O’Brien. “Maybe some other independent folks like retired judges who understand the process involved. That way we can get away from the party politics. The way it’s done now is they carve out safe seats for themselves.”
“I just don’t see how you can do good government without that,” said Bryan Clenehan (D-30), who is running to replace Shawn Morse (D-17) as chairman of the legislature when the body convenes after the first of the year. “And it’s not like it hasn’t been done elsewhere.”