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District Maps Receive Ridicule

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CANTON - A task force made up of state lawmakers released a set of political maps Thursday that good government groups immediately and forcefully derided as a politically motivated stunt: The lawmakers who drew the maps were interested in protecting incumbents, not serving New Yorkers, they said.
And the evidence of "political gerrymandering," according to good government advocates, can be found right in the north country's backyard.
For example, while districts represented by members of the majority barely changed at all, Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush lost most of St. Lawrence County and is looking at 12 new towns in Oneida County, far from the Republican's Black River home. And St. Lawrence County would be represented by four Assembly members and three state senators, potentially violating the state Constitution's guidance that division of political subdivisions should be avoided.
"Clearly when you have four different Assembly districts that are sharing the same county that has a population less than the size of one district, it raises serious questions as to how the lines are drawn," said Alex Camarda, an official at Citizens Union.
St. Lawrence County has a population of 116,000. Each Assembly district should have about 130,000 residents, but four Assembly members would split up the county under the proposal from the Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment.
Mr. Camarda wasn't alone in criticizing the districts. But none of the rebukes was more significant than that of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, whose spokesman told the Albany Times-Union that the lines were "unacceptable" and would be met with a veto.
But with time running out on a long-sought independent panel to redraw the political boundaries, the districts represented the first salvo in what could be a long, drawn-out fight that culminates in a last-minute deal or a court decision.
"What we're focusing on now for 2012 is to make the maps the best they can be," said Mr. Camarda, who said the chances for an independent panel that wouldn't include the lawmakers themselves were "slim."
Asked whether they had a lot of work to do, Mr. Camarda responded simply: "Yes."
The proposal would double the number of state legislators who represent the tri-county area — Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence. Legislators were loath to criticize the new districts, even if it put them at a disadvantage, lest they appear unwelcoming to new constituents.
The eight legislators who would represent the tri-county area include: State Sens. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton; Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome; and Elizabeth O.C. Little, R-Queensbury; and in the Assembly, Mr. Blankenbush; Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa; Assemblywoman Janet L. Duprey, R-Peru; and Assemblyman Marc Butler, R-Newport.
Mr. Butler is not a name familiar to north country political watchers. He lives about 170 miles from the northernmost town of his proposed district, Norfolk.
"I would dare say the district they're proposing for me is the largest in terms of territory in the state," Mr. Butler said.
Mr. Butler said he'd be happy to represent St. Lawrence County — he has family there, and went to college in Potsdam — but said the process was unfair. He said it appeared majority members got to pick their own districts, and that whatever is leftover went to minority members. Democrats run the Assembly and Republicans control the Senate.
"I certainly could have done much worse, but I don't think the process is at all fair," Mr. Butler said. "And I don't think it's fair to the people of St. Lawrence County."
He'd have to hire fewer staffers and wouldn't be able to as readily attend to the needs of the 16 St. Lawrence County towns.
"I'm just going to have to get in my car and drive up there," he said. "I don't think they're going to get the representation they deserve."
No north country politician suffered the fate of several Senate Democrats and two Assembly Republicans: being put in the same district as an incumbent or someone who is considering a run.
Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney, a Republican who lives in New Hartford, was put into the same district as Assemblyman Peter Lopez, a fellow Republican. Most of the towns that she represented were handed over to Mr. Blankenbush.
"I am the poster child for gerrymandering, if that's the case," Ms. Tenney said.
Mr. Blankenbush said he'd be sad to say goodbye to some of his constituents.
"I've worked a lot in St. Lawrence County, met a lot of great people," he said. "If these maps are the maps that come out, I'd be disappointed in losing that county. I'm also disappointed in losing southern Jefferson County."
Mrs. Russell and Mrs. Ritchie, majority members in their respective chambers, didn't see many changes to their districts.
"I'm pleased that my district remains relatively intact," Mrs. Ritchie said.
Asked of several factors that led some to believe the lines were politically rigged — for example, the New York Public Interest Research Group called the state Senate's lines "clearly the most gerrymandered lines in recent New York history" — Mrs. Ritchie said: "I had minimal input into the lines."
The word "gerrymandering" is the combination of a former Massachusetts governor's name and the word salamander, which one of the proposed districts, tortured to meet political expedience and not geographical continuity, resembled.
Mrs. Russell, too, said she liked her lines, and even though Mr. Cuomo does not, she said she feels a deal could be made.
"These are just proposed maps," Mrs. Russell said. "It's my hope that perhaps we can work through this in the Legislature and with the governor and listen to the feedback given by communities affected by changes."
The panel will meet Jan. 30 in Albany and, closer to home, at 3 p.m. Feb. 14 at Henninger High School, 600 Robinson St., Syracuse.

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