After Redistricting, Political Clout Remains Uncertain

Northattan featured a special report on redistricting, particularly in the context of City Council districts based on ethnic make-up.

The first article excerpted below focuses on whether the representative for the newly-proposed district of Inwood and Washington Heights should be able to speak Spanish given the area’s population. The second looks at how redistricting has, according to advocacy groups, left Asian-Americans underrepresented.

Luisa Navarro reported that new redistricting proposals by the city would put Inwood and most of Washington Heights under District 10, instead of the current districts, 7 and 10. Some residents want representation that reflects the majority of the population, specifically elected officials who speak Spanish.

Dominican and Inwood resident Jose Rivera, 24, supports merging the two neighborhoods under one district as they’re predominantly Latino. “It’d be better if the council member here spoke Spanish because the majority of us here do.” He continued, “I think it’s a good idea that all of Inwood is in the same district and that it’s represented by the same people. We’ll understand him better as Hispanics.”

In what is currently District 10 (which “covers the eastern half of Broadway through Inwood, down to 161st Street in Washington Heights”), represented by Democratic Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, 79.6 percent of eligible voters are Hispanic. Under the proposed plan, that number would shift down to 68.4 percent.

Other residents also feel their representatives should be able to speak Spanish as it lets them better understand the people they’re representing.

Michael Diaz, a member of Community Board 12, which covers Washington Heights and Inwood, said it’s important to have council members and leaders like Rodriguez who can relate to the community in order to overcome language barriers.

“Ydanis goes into a neighborhood and speaks Spanish fluently to individuals in the community, which makes individuals more comfortable than an English speaker like [District 7 Councilman] Robert Jackson,” Diaz said. “Especially for people who have been speaking Spanish a long time and only speak Spanish.”

Joseph DaSilva, 46, has been living in Washington Heights for four years. He said that while he’s not Hispanic, he thinks it is crucial for council members of both Inwood and Washington Heights to speak Spanish.

“They have to speak Spanish,” he said. “I speak Spanish, and I’m not Spanish.”

But not everyone thinks so.

“A good representative isn’t about the language they speak, it’s about how well they represent the constituents,” said 62-year-old Gibson Glass, who has been living in Inwood for two years.

Juan Marte, 57, has lived in Washington Heights for 25 years. Selling fruit with his nephew at 169th Street and Broadway, he said the district lines don’t matter that much.

“It doesn’t make a difference to me, but it does matter to politicians,” he said.

Meanwhile, Emma Elbuzedi looked at the Asian-American community’s struggles to establish voting districts in the city. She used the example of Bensonhurst, home to a large number of Asian-Americans.

In 2003, redistricting split the area into four City Council districts thereby “diluting that community’s voice and political clout.” This division of political power can also affect Hispanics and African Americans in Northattan. Manhattan Valley, for example, will now split its predominanatly Hispanic population into three separate districts.

Asian Americans fight for representation during the redistricting process. (Photo by Guy Tsui / World Journal)

While there are one million Asian-Americans in New York City, it took until 2001 for the first Asian-American to reach the City Council; today, the number has increased by only one.

Asian-American advocacy organizations believe redistricting is the cause of the underrepresentation. One of those groups, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, fights for community representation in the redistricting and political process.

Said staff attorney Jerry Vattamala, “If a community of interest is split into four or five districts, what this really means is that their respective representatives will not care about the minority group, because their diluted number means that they cannot affect the outcome of the election for said representative.” However, despite joint efforts by Vattamala and AALDEF, and other community organizations, the revised proposal maps by the city did not reflect the desired district lines.

He and his colleagues at AALDEF identified the neighborhoods in New York City with the highest numbers of Asian-Americans. From there, they met with all of the organizations and groups that were based in those 15 neighborhoods and began educating them on redistricting and why it was important.  Vattamala and his colleagues then asked community members to identify for themselves what they saw as the borders of their communities, as well as what made their communities unique. They were also asked to identify the surrounding neighborhoods that were most similar and dissimilar.  AALDEF held sessions with community groups to develop a consensus on what the boundary lines were for each Asian-American neighborhood.  All of this information was compiled into the Asian-American communities of interest survey for New York, along with a map.

AALDEF joined forces with advocates from other minority groups, including LatinoJustice PRLDEF, the Center for Law and Social Justice, the National Institute for Latino Policy and La Fuente. Together, they presented the Unity Map, which proposed uniting the communities of interest in Chinatown and most of the Lower East Side into one district, while removing the distinct neighborhoods of Tribeca and Battery Park City. In the Unity map, the two most divided Asian-American neighborhoods in the city, Richmond Hill/South Ozone Park and Bensonhurst, currently divided among four districts each, were mostly united within one district each, a proposed District 32 for Richmond Hill and a proposed District 47 for Bensonhurst.

That was the proposal.

But things looked a little different on Nov. 15, when the districting commission released its revised maps. Under the new proposed map, several Asian-American communities are still fragmented, including Bensonhurst, which remains divided into four separate council districts. Chinatown and most of the Lower East Side also remain split into two council districts.  The Queens districts also remained mostly unchanged.

The fight goes on, with Vattamala commenting, “The Commission should have afforded the public the opportunity to comment on the proposed map before submitting the map to the City Council.”

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