If the gerrymandering situation is messy in the state Legislature, the congressional picture is no less baffling and complex.
And nowhere in the state is the problem more vexing to voters than in Harlem and the 15th District, which has been represented by Rep. Charles Rangel for half of his 81 years.
What many New Yorkers are not aware of is the extent to which the state has to accede to the bylaws of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This act and the provisions enforced through Section 5 were set aside for counties, districts and states that had a tradition of discrimination against certain voters.
“But it also applies to states outside of the South,” said Harlem Assemblyman Herman “Denny” Farrell, including Manhattan, the Bronx and Kings County, which had less than 50 percent of the voting-age population voting in 1960 and/or 1964 and thereby are covered in the original act.
“The law states that you can’t diminish a minority district,” Farrell added, which means that in order to change those districts, preclearance is needed according to Section 5 of the act.
Much of this was on Farrell’s mind as lawmakers and mapmakers debated the upcoming congressional district lines in Harlem and elsewhere in the state.
To wit: What are the possibilities of Rangel’s district reaching all the way to Westchester County?
“In order to do that, some people said that the 15th District would look like a dragon, but all that is speculation,” Rangel told a press roundtable on Monday at his office in Harlem. “The head would be in Mount Vernon, the belly in Washington Heights, and so on.” Such an eventuality, he said, would not be welcomed.
But, to be sure, his constituency is shrinking. African-Americans represent only 33 percent of his district, white voters represent 27 percent and Hispanics are the largest, at 35 percent.
Farrell offers different figures for Blacks in Harlem, citing they are 26 percent. This was just one piece of information from his recent town hall session, in which he explained the ins and outs of gerrymandering.
Apparently, he also upset Rangel when he said that the congressman’s district would have to increase to 200,000 to offset the fact that the state is losing two congressional seats. His suggestion was that Rangel’s district would have to be reshaped to include portions of the Bronx to ensure a Black and Latino majority, rather than be expanded into lower Manhattan, which, given the demographics, would guarantee a white victory.
“Rangel blew up at me,” Farrell said, according to the New York Observer.
But the eruption between longtime colleagues was eventually settled, and Farrell promised him a district with “favorable demographics.”
“He will cut around, he will go up at 155th Street, he will cut up and go up into the Bronx, he will go to Co-op City and he’ll go up into Westchester,” Farrell said. “By doing that…the district will end up being approximately 41 percent African-American and that was the number we had to raise. It’ll be a mix of Latino, then Asian and white, so it’ll be mixed, but it will be a district that can be won.”
There is speculation the congressional primaries will be set for June 26, though Farrell said that is not an ironclad date.
The decrease in the district, and Harlem in particular, is not only a concern for Rangel, it’s a situation obvious to all the elected officials. “When I was first elected in 1992,” Assemblyman Keith Wright recalled, “my district was 86 percent Black. Ten years later, Blacks represented 66 percent. Now they total about 51 percent. We’ve lost more than 100,000 African-Americans over the last decade.”
Why has there been such a dramatic decrease? “First of all, there’s the economy,” Wright explained. “Then there is the vast number of retirees, many of them leaving the city for cheaper residences down South.”
Many of the community’s younger Black residents, Wright said, have found it less expensive to live in New Jersey and other places rather than in Harlem.
“I was approached by a former Black resident who asked me why there were so many whites now living in Harlem,” Wright said. “And I told him it was because he had left. Whites are not coming to Harlem because they want to live next door to Black folks; they realize it’s a lot cheaper here than downtown.”