The heavily Orthodox communities of Long Island’s Five Towns have become a potent political force, winning seats on village councils and control of a major public school district while being sought out as a voting bloc and donor base.
But those communities may soon have less of a collective say in Nassau County politics as the Republican-controlled Legislature heads toward approval of a controversial, hasty redistricting plan.
The new map, which critics say is a power grab being rushed into enactment in order to affect this fall’s elections, would eviscerate the 7th District that now contains all of the Five Towns as well as North Woodmere, Bay Park and Island Park, while also splitting another Jewish area, Great Neck. The map would also divide two heavily areas villages, Elmont and Hempstead.
The Five Towns, which are actually all villages within the Town of Hempstead, are Cedarhurst, Inwood, Hewlett, Woodmere and Lawrence. The plan would divide Woodmere and Cedarhurst and part of Inwood between two districts. On Thursday, state Supreme Court Judge Steven Jaeger issued a restraining order against the plan in response to a challenge by the Nassau Democrats, with a gearing set for May 26.
Jay Jacobs, who is chair of both the Nassau County and New York State Democratic committees, said Monday that the Legisature’s minority caucus, who brought the lawsuit, would work to kill the redistricting bill by making it impossible to implement.
"The closer we get to the end of May the more difficult it will be to get it done in time for petitioning," for ballots slots, which begins June 7," he said. "Our plan is to defeat it and if not we are going to delay as long as possible."
The 7th District has proven to be politically versatile. When the Legislature replaced a board of supervisors in 1996, the district elected a Republican, Bruce Blakeman of Valley Stream, and in 2000, Democrat Jeff Toback of Oceanside. In 2009, Republican Howard Kopel of Lawrence unseated Toback.
That year Republicans took control of the Legislature with 11 of 19 seats, while Republican Ed Mangano ousted Democrat Thomas Suozzi as county executive.
The county charter requires redistricting based on decennial U.S. Census figures to ensure that each of its 19 districts has about 70,000 residents and that minority representation is equal. But the county’s Democrats and the editorial page of Newsday say the leadership, under Presiding Officer Peter J. Schmitt of Massapequa, wants to push the plan through quickly because census trends may be politically unfavorable to them. They argue the Legislature must first create a bipartisan commission and publicize the districts well in advance of the election. The map as drawn, they say, consolidates Republican areas while making Democrats battle each other in new bailiwicks.
Schmitt insists he is acting in accordance with federal requirements that all districts have equal populations.
“The census data that came in shows that District 2, a minority district represented by Robert Troiano, has 10,000 more people than other districts,” Schmitt said in an interview Tuesday. “My district has approximately 67,000 people. The charter demands that this be addressed immediately.” Not doing so before the May 30 filing deadline for designating petitions for candidates, he said, would codify that imbalance and invite federal lawsuits. “You can’t go two years knowing you have a deviation in the population, which is unconstitutional.” He said the Democratic minority could have submitted its own plan but failed to do so.
The Legislature last changed districts in 2003, three years after the previous census.
“While the hasteful attempt at redistricting is being packaged as compliance with a mandate, it’s nothing more than political manipulation,” said Karen Green, a Democrat who lives in Woodmere and is a former aide to Suozzi. Green, who was a Toback supporter in 2009, attended a hearing about the changes on Monday morning and hoped to voice her opposition but left when she heard that dissenters would be allowed to speak only at the end of the meeting. (After an outcry from many opponents, public comment was allowed earlier.)
“The Five Towns, which collectively make up a cohesive body with shared interests, is being chopped up under the watch of freshman legislator Howard Kopel,” she added.
Green said the Five Towns Jewish community hasn’t voiced much opposition to the plan and didn’t attend Monday’s hearing in large number, partly because the early weekday morning schedule made it difficult.
“I don’t think people feel the legislators have much effect on their lives,” said Green. “They’re too busy trying to survive in this economy.”
Kopel has expressed mixed feelings about the plan. He told the Long Island Herald last week that while he opposed the splitting of Cedarhurst, the larger Five Towns area would gain influence because it would have two legislators “working toward the needs of the community.”
In an interview with The Jewish Week Tuesday Kopel said his interpretation of the charter, like that of his fellow Republicans, calls for immediate redistricting.
“I was persuaded that there is a legal imperative that the lines have to be changed, but I’m not quite happy with the actual lines drawn,” he said. “I intend to fight for better lines in terms of the Orthodox community.”
Kopel added that if the district is split it would not change the way he operates. “I have lived in Lawrence for 23 years and will continue to live in Lawrence. When I get a request from Great Neck or anywhere in the frum [Orthodox] community, I do anything I can to help. That’s not going to change.”
He said there would be another opportunity to redraw the district next March when the county is required to convene a 15-member bipartisan committee with five members each appointed by the majority, minority and the county supervisor.
Kopel said the Five Towns Jewish community would be better served by greater voter turnout and participation. “We need to participate much more heavily so that people see us as more visible,” he said.
Michael Fragin, a member of Lawrence’s village board of trustees and a Republican who was a community affairs liaison in the administration of Gov. George Pataki, said his village would be unaffected by the map change.
“But potentially, as it relates to the wider area, it will have an effect,” he said. “I have seen various representatives of Cedarhurst who are not happy with the plan. The Five Towns, though it is not specifically a political boundary, has a lot of common interests and common problems … a lot of the nuts-and-bolts [of life] are county-controlled.
“Having an area like Inwood, for example, or half of Cedarhurst in a different district makes advocating for certain things more difficult when you don’t have a stronger voice with an elected official,” Fragin continued. “Instead of being a very significant part of a single legislative district you become a significant part in one district and a bit of a significant part of another.”
Schmitt said it was impossible to change other districts without a ripple effect across the whole county. “Redistricting is like a bowl of Jell-O,” he said. “If you make a push on one end of it something pops out on the other end.”
He said the Legislature is required to preserve two existing minority districts while, in his view, creating a third, which requires drawing population from other districts, respecting town lines as much as possible.
Redistributing the current Five Towns bloc into two districts ensures that the new 7th as well as the emerging new 19th District will each have equal population, he said.
The change comes as local Jewish organizations are closely watching the statewide redistricting process, which, due to population shifts, will require elimination of two congressional districts as well as routine redrawing of state legislative districts.
Under the federal Voting Rights Act, areas that contain large populations of African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans or Native Americans must be preserved, but religious minorities are not protected.
The Jewish Community Relations Council last week convened a panel of experts to analyze the redistricting process.
“Having a person represent you who comes from your particular co-op or community is not always the best way to have your interests represented,” said John Mollenkopf of the CUNY Graduate Center’s Center for Urban Research in response to a question on Jewish communities and what Mollenkopf called identity politics. “It might be better to have an interested representative who worries about what your people will do, which might have greater influence than having one person who can’t lose elections because he or she comes from that geographically packed community.”
But he added, “on the other hand there is a long history in the U.S. of districts being drawn up to disenfranchise groups of people and disempower them.” So if Jews feel they are being disenfranchised “they should press the case forward.”