Redistricting judge could decide Rep. Rangel’s future

Rep. Charles Rangel could see his Harlem district move to the Bronx in one of the plans under review by a federal judge. Photo: Office of Rep. Rangel

He survived congressional censure and the loss of his perch atop the House Ways and Means Committee. Now New York’s longest-serving member of Congress, 81-year-old Charles Rangel, may soon face another serious career threat – from the magistrate who is in charge of drawing congressional lines for New York.

Today federal Magistrate Judge Roanne L. Mann, the special master in charge of New York’s redistricting, will hear arguments on behalf of competing proposals for Congressional maps that political parties and civic organizations have submitted to her court. The Democrats who control the State Assembly, the Republicans who preside over the State Senate and the reform group Common Cause, among other petitioners, will make the case that their lines best serve the interests of New Yorkers.

Judge Mann took charge of drawing district lines after the Democratic-controlled state Assembly and Republican-led state Senate failed to come to agreement on boundaries for members of Congress.

While the Assembly Democrats and Senate Republicans submitted dramatically different proposals to the court, they were united in their deference to Congressman Rangel’s enduring clout: Both parties’ congressional redistricting maps left his district almost entirely intact and solidly based in Manhattan.

Not so the proposal from Common Cause, a good-government group that deliberately drew district lines without regard to where incumbents live. The map it has submitted to the court would shift the bulk of Rangel’s district to the Bronx, maintaining only a small area in east and central Harlem that includes Rangel’s residence. Rangel would remain a formidable contender, but he would lose much of the influence that stems from representing a Manhattan-based district while acting as a top power broker in the Manhattan Democratic party.

“It is interesting that both of these maps haven’t made massively radical changes to this district,” said Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York, of the two proposals for Rangel’s district submitted by the state legislature. “The Common Cause plan, in contrast, is a map that is drawn without any incumbent information and as a consequence looks markedly different from either the Republican or the Democratic plan.”

Common Cause says its proposal is part of a broader effort to create more Latino-majority districts to reflect the growing Latino population in upper Manhattan and the Bronx.

Mann has indicated in two ways that she is strongly considering Common Cause’s incumbent-blind approach for her own district lines. She has ordered the state task force that drew the maps to submit its data to the court without information on incumbents’ place of residence. She has also ordered participants at today’s hearing to specifically submit comments on Common Cause’s proposal.

If Mann decides to proceed with incumbent-blind maps, Rangel may see the majority of his district shifted into the Bronx in accord with the proposal by Common Cause – an outcome he has fiercely opposed throughout the redistricting process.

“All my life, Harlem has been my home,” Rangel said in a statement to The New York World. “Emotionally, I cannot perceive representing Manhattan outside of Harlem. I thought that 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago as I’m sure Adam Clayton Powell Jr. did 50, 60 years ago.”

Rangel has already survived a fierce dispute between the Manhattan and Bronx Democratic parties over where the future heart of the congressman’s district should lie. Last week, Frederic Dicker of the New York Post reported that Bronx Democratic chairman Carl Heastie and Manhattan Democratic chairman Keith Wright both hope to run for the seat when Rangel retires, and were squabbling over which borough would contain the majority of the district. Dicker wrote that the clash was serious enough that it delayed the release of the Assembly’s proposed Congressional maps.

The three-judge panel that appointed Mann has also established criteria for the new maps. The panel has called for districts to have equal population and comply with the federal Voting Rights Act, as well as be “compact, contiguous, respect political subdivisions, and preserve communities of interest.”

Rangel has maintained throughout the process that he has no influence over redistricting, a point he made again in his statement this weekend “I’m not in a position to persuade anybody — the Governor, Judge, Assembly,” said Rep. Rangel.

The congressman isn’t bluffing, said an attorney involved in the case, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of ongoing deliberations. “A member of Congress may have a lot of muscle, but when a court draws a plan the court is going to look to the law first.”

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