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Some Democratic lawmakers see racism in New York redistricting process

A new map for New York's congressional districts has thrown the state's delegation into chaos, likely forcing incumbents to compete against each other for seats and inviting charges of racism against the man who drew the map and each other.

New York Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney is on the receiving end of much of that ire. It's his job as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair to help his fellow Democrats win their races. Maloney currently represents the 18th Congressional District, which includes much of Hudson Valley. But when the new map drawn by a court-ordered special master put Maloney's actual house in the new 17th District – currently represented by freshman Mondaire Jones – Maloney wasted little time before declaring he would run in the new 17th District

A majority of Maloney's constituents, whom he has represented since he was elected in 2012, still live in the 18th District, while most of Jones' constituents still live within the bounds of the 17th District (members are not required to live in the district they represent). Maloney is now the only representative who lives within the bounds of the district, which  he was quick to point out on Twitter. But if Jones were to run in the district where his White Plains home is located, he would have to compete against Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a fellow young Black progressive. 

Maloney is also leaving an 18th District that became more competitive in the latest map, while the new 17th District slightly favors Democrats. 

When a reporter from Punchbowl News reported Wednesday that Maloney's allies were "spreading the message that Jones would be ideologically better suited to another district," that didn't sit well with another one of New York's younger congressmen — Rep. Ritchie Torres, an Afro-Latino member who represents the Bronx. 

"The thinly veiled racism here is profoundly disappointing. A black man is ideologically ill suited to represent a Westchester County District that he represents presently and won decisively in 2020?" Torres wrote on Twitter. "Outrageous."

Asked about the maps on Tuesday, Maloney told reporters the new map was "a broken process has produced a broken result" but denied that he was mounting a primary challenge against Bowman.

"I'm the only sitting member who lives in the district, which is now New York 17 — which remains a competitive district, by the way — which we have to win in the fall," he said. "I haven't had an easy district since I came to Congress, but it's my home in Putnam County — in fact, the entire county of Putnam County, which voted for Trump by 20 points in 2016 — is in this district. So, from my point of view, I'm just running where I landed."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declined to wade into the debate when asked about it Thursday, though she echoed Maloney's argument and said he was among the members who had decided to run where their homes are. 

She also said his decision to switch to a new district didn't conflict with his duties as the head of House Democrats' campaign arm, calling him a "great chairman" and "master" of mobilization, messaging and fundraising.

"He has worked very hard. I'm very proud of the work he's done," she said.

The DCCC is exploring options for challenging the new map, which is slated to be finalized Friday. Maloney "continues to fight against this illegitimate process," said committee spokesman Chris Hayden. "He has proven he can lead the DCCC without his own race interfering, and he will continue to do so."

After the independent commission that was originally supposed to draw the New York congressional map could not reach a consensus, the Legislature, controlled by Democrats, drew a map that would have created 20 Democratic-leaning seats, four Republican-leaning, and two competitive seats, which could potentially result in a net gain of four seats for Democrats. However, after that map was thrown out by the courts and assigned a special master to redraw the lines, the new map gave Democrats 16 seats that would lean their way, Republicans would have five, and there would be five competitive seats. The current congressional delegation has 19 Democrats and eight Republicans.

Others in the delegation have vented their anger at the court-appointed author of the map, Jonathan Cervas. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a member of the House Democratic leadership who now finds himself in the same district as fellow Black Democrat Yvette Clarke, wrote on Twitter that the map "viciously targets historic Black representation."

"This tactic would make Jim Crow blush," he wrote, a line he repeated in an ad his campaign unveiled Wednesday evening. Neither he nor Clarke has announced what they'll do.

Clarke and Bowman both talked about low-income housing communities that would be either split across districts or cut off from other majority-Black communities in a way that would have less voting power to address their specific needs.

"This proposal harkens back to an era in our nation where laws were designed to limit minority representation in our democracy. The practice of 'cracking' or diluting the voting power of historically oppressed communities was shameful when carried out by avowed racists in positions of power in previous decades and extremely disappointing when enabled by an out of state, unelected consultant today," Clarke said in a statement calling on Cervas to revisit his map – which could be finalized for New York's August primaries by Friday. 

New York Law School professor and redistricting expert Jeffrey Wice said one potential path for the proposed map to be overturned by courts is through a focus on how minority populations in certain districts are impacted. Wice noted that the minority populations in districts represented by Torres and Democratic Rep. Adriano Espailliat may have been diluted enough to prevent them from electing their candidate of choice, and this would warrant a Voting Rights Act violation claim. 

"The Voting Rights Act and Constitution do not exist to protect incumbents. They protect voters," he said. 

While Ohio Rep. Joyce Beatty, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told reporters on Wednesday that "things can always be handled better," she focused her criticism on the courts, rather than her colleagues. 

"I think the bigger picture is what happened in redistricting," she told reporters. "If you want to talk about something being racially motivated, let's go look at the court system. Let's go look at how those judges are put there." Acting state Supreme Court Justice Patrick McAllister, who ruled the maps needed to be redrawn, is a Republican who was elected to a 10-year term in Steuben County Surrogate's Court in 2018.

The plight of the delegation's Black members has drawn far more scrutiny than two of their longest-serving White members, Democrats Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney, who have represented districts encompassing the Upper West Side and Upper East Side, respectively, for decades. The two will now be pitted against each other in the 12th District, which encompasses a wide swath of Manhattan. Both plan to run in that district. 

Their plight  creates an opening for another White politician: former New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Wednesday that he is creating an exploratory committee to run in Nadler's old district, the 10th.

Aaron Navarro, Adam Brewster and Ellis Kim contributed to this report.

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