Redistricting reform and the gerrymandered Jewish legislator


As was widely reported last week, California’s new redistricting proposal seems likely to lead to a showdown between two veteran Jewish lawmakers: Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman. The two incumbent San Fernando Valley Democrats would be tossed together into a single congressional district by the more rational, draft map drawn up by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission.

While the commission may still make adjustments before the release of a final map in August, if a Berman-Sherman match-up does materialize for 2012, Capitol Hill would end up losing a prominent pro-Israel voice. But Berman and Sherman likely won’t be the last Jewish members of Congress to have their political worlds shaken up by the current wave of redistricting reform.


Congressional districts that wander wildly across the landscape are the products, variously, of partisan scheming, efforts to give incumbents safe seats and attempts to carve out districts likely to elect legislators from racial minority groups. Reformers want to encourage more competitive elections by rationalizing our crazy-quilt pattern of strange-shaped but incumbent-friendly congressional districts. As states adjust their political maps to take into account the findings of the 2010 Census, we’re going to see the impact of the redistricting reform movement on congressional districts in states across the country.

Whether by design (incumbent protection or partisan maneuvering), by default (minority advancement efforts in neighboring districts) or some combination thereof, many Jewish Democrats with heavily Jewish constituencies represent districts that may be conducive to their reelection but are far from compact or elegant.

This is true in South Florida:

* Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee’s chairwoman, has a district that slithers like a snake through Broward County and then hugs the coast down into Miami-Dade County, leaping across the Biscayne Bay to take in heavily Jewish northern Miami Beach.

* Rep. Ted Deutch’s congressional district (which, according to the National Jewish Democratic Council, is the country’s most heavily Jewish district) is an amoeba sprawled across parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Neither district seems remotely consistent with the provisions of redistricting reforms approved by Florida voters in 2010. Amendments 5 and 6 prohibit favoritism for incumbents or political parties in redistricting, ordering state legislators to draw compact districts that utilize existing poltical and geographic boundaries. It will be interesting to see what Deutch’s and Wasserman Schultz’s look like after new maps are made.

(Wasserman Schultz, for her part, has hailed the passage of the amendments as “a significant victory for Floridians. The Florida Legislature will no longer be able to play games with drawing district lines to protect incumbents, protect political parties and we finally have an opportunity to have districts fairly drawn. No more Rorschach test-like district maps!”)

Meanwhile, some of New York City’s heavily Jewish congressional districts are particularly serpentine:

* Rep. Eliot Engel’s congressional district goes from the heavily Jewish Riverdale section of the Bronx into Westchester County and then is connected via a narrow land bridge to upstate Orthodox strongholds like Monsey and New Square.

* Rep. Jerrold Nadler’s congressional district stretches from Manhattan’s liberal and heavily Jewish Upper West Side all the way via downtown Manhattan to Brooklyn neighborhoods like Orthodox Jewish Borough Park and Russian Jewish Brighton Beach.

* The congressional district until recently represented by over-sharer Rep. Anthony Weiner manages to take in both the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood in Brooklyn and the Forest Hills section of Queens, two heavily Jewish but far-flung neighborhoods that wouldn’t be easy to commute between via mass transit.

Fortunately for incumbents, New York’s sclerotic state legislature appears to have failed to pass redistricting reform this session. So for now gerrymandering will likely remain alive and well in the Empire State. However, many expect that the state legislature, which has to eliminate two congressional districts as a result of the 2010 Census, will get rid of the one that had been represented by the guy with the infamous Twitter habits. Jews in Brooklyn and Queens may be united in anger, but the state’s incumbents will breathe a sigh of relief that their own districts will be spared the axe.


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