hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues June 2022


U.S. House districts shift again

Court rulings set stage for close Hudson Valley races as Delgado exits



A final map of New York’s new congressional districts, released last month by a court-appointed expert, creates two new politically competitive districts in the Hudson Valley, neither of which has an incumbent currently. One would stretch from Columbia County westward to Ithaca. Elsewhere in the region, the map retains a Democratic-leaning seat in the Albany area and a strongly Republican seat to the north


Contributing writer


The status of congressional races across eastern New York has been upended in recent weeks by a court-ordered redrawing of election districts – and by the resignation of Democratic Rep. Antonio Delgado after his appointment as the state’s new lieutenant governor.

A final set of district maps approved by a state court on May 20 left intact much of the geographic area in the current districts of Democrat Paul Tonko and Republican Elise Stefanik — except for the hometowns of the two incumbents.

Tonko’s longtime home city of Amsterdam was redrawn into the 21st Congressional District, where Stefanik said she plans to run for re-election, while Stefanik’s residence in Schuylerville was shifted, along with the rest of northern Saratoga County, into the 20th district, where Tonko says he’ll seek re-election.

To the south in the Hudson Valley, voters in the current 19th Congressional District will go to the polls twice this year to choose their U.S. representatives — once to replace Delgado, who resigned May 25, and a second time in November, with potentially different sets of candidates, to choose representatives in the newly configured districts that take effect in January.

The new congressional maps will dramatically reshape the territory that had been represented by Delgado. Most of Rensselaer County will shift into the new 21st district, a strongly Republican zone where Stefanik is running for re-election, except that the cities of Troy and Rensselaer will remain in the Democratic-leaning 20th district, where Tonko is running.

Columbia County, meanwhile, will be part of a sprawling new 19th district that will stretch westward across the state to Binghamton and Ithaca. This new, politically competitive district has no incumbent.

And Delgado’s hometown of Rhinebeck, along with nearly all of Dutchess County, will become part of a new, compact 18th district to the south — another tossup district with no incumbent.
Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro, a Republican who had been planning to challenge Delgado’s bid for a third term, now says he plans to run in the new 19th district, even though his home in northern Dutchess County isn’t in the district. Josh Riley, a Democratic lawyer who grew up in the Binghamton area, also is running for the seat.

Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan, a Democrat, has said he plans to run for the new 18th district House seat.

But first, both Ryan and Molinaro are expected to compete in a special election to fill out the remainder of Delgado’s term representing the current 19th district. The special election is required within 90 days of Delgado’s resignation, although Gov. Kathy Hochul had not yet set a date as of late May. One possibility could be Aug. 23, which is already the date for the state’s congressional and state Senate primaries.


Court rulings change landscape
The political turns of the past month are just the latest in a New York election-year drama that has had as many plot twists as a good mystery novel.

After the state’s new Independent Redistricting Commission was unable to agree on a new set of congressional and legislative district maps, the Legislature, where Democrats hold supermajorities in both chambers, took charge of the map-making process. The result was a plan signed by Hochul in early February that many analysts predicted would leave Republicans representing just four of the state’s 26 House districts, compared with eight of the current 27 seats.

But Republicans challenged that plan in court, and on March 31 a state judge threw out the Legislature’s maps, ruling that they amounted to partisan gerrymandering that’s prohibited under a state constitutional amendment that voters ratified in 2014. The ruling by state Supreme Court Justice Patrick McAllister was upheld in two legal appeals in April, including a 4-3 ruling by the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.

McAllister appointed an independent expert, Jonathan Cervas of Carnegie Melon University in Pittsburgh, to draw a new set of congressional and state Senate maps for New York. The court released a draft set of maps on May 16 and approved them, with a few revisions based on public feedback, on May 20.

Delgado, whose old 19th district was one of the state’s most competitive politically, had been gearing up for a potentially strong challenge from Molinaro in a race that some political analysts had predicted would be a national bellwether for Democrats’ effort to retain their House majority.
Delgado had a whopping $5.8 million in his re-election campaign fund as of March 31 -- nearly eight times the $730,000 in Molinaro’s war chest as of that date, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

The maps drawn by the Legislature would have improved Delgado’s re-election chances by rearranging the boundaries of his district to double its Democratic voter enrollment advantage from 4.2 to 8.4 percentage points, though analysts predicted Molinaro would still have had a chance in a year with strong GOP turnout.


Delgado moves on
But in early May, with the results of the court-ordered remapping still unknown, Delgado accepted Hochul’s appointment to fill the seat of former Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin, who resigned in April after being indicted on corruption charges. Benjamin has pleaded not guilty in what prosecutors said was a scheme to use taxpayer money in exchange for illegal contributions to his 2020 state Senate race and a 2021 bid for New York City comptroller.

Last month the state Democratic Party designated Delgado as its preferred candidate for lieutenant governor in this year’s election, acting after Hochul signed a new law that allowed Benjamin to remove his name from the ballot.

Delgado faces a three-way Democratic primary in June for lieutenant governor against Diana Reyna, who is aligned with gubernatorial candidate Tom Suozzi, and Anna Maria Archila, who is aligned with Jumaane Williams. Candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run separately in New York primaries, with the winners joining in a general election ticket.

Robert Turner, a political science professor at Skidmore College, said Delgado’s decision to accept the job of lieutenant governor might have been driven in part by concerns over losing his House seat in what is shaping up as a difficult year for Democrats, particularly with the uncertainty about how the state’s political maps might be redrawn.

“I think he could have been in a very competitive race,” Turner said, adding that Delgado can now be “reasonably confident” of being elected lieutenant governor.

But he also said Delgado might have felt that serving as lieutenant governor offered him more of a chance to shape policy than he’d have if Republicans were to win a House majority in November.

Turner also said Delgado must have been cognizant of the fact that the office of lieutenant governor, once considered a mainly ceremonial position, has become a path to the governorship in recent years.

“We’ve seen our last two governors resign and their lieutenant governors become governors,” he said, referring to the ascension of David Paterson, who took over as governor after Eliot Spitzer’s resignation in 2008, and Hochul, who became governor last year after Andrew Cuomo’s departure.


More toss-up races?
New York lost one congressional district as a result of the 2020 census, which showed its population growth was not as great as that of some other states. Because the population of metropolitan New York City increased while many upstate areas declined, both the Legislature’s and the court’s congressional maps effectively eliminated one district upstate, increasing the size of the remaining districts.

But the new maps drawn by Cervas and approved by the court would result in more politically competitive districts in many parts of the state.

Under the maps the Legislature had drawn, Republicans would have been favored to retain just four of state’s 26 House districts, and only two districts statewide, including Delgado’s, would have been considered politically competitive.

In contrast, McAllister predicted that the new congressional maps would yield 15 safe seats for Democrats, three safe Republican seats and eight swing seats.

David Wasserman, an analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, wrote in a commentary last month that the new maps are not devastating to Democrats — but could be a boon to Republicans in a year when many believe the overall political landscape favors the GOP.
The new maps were not without controversy. After the first drafts came out, the mayors of Albany, Amsterdam, Saratoga Springs, Schenectady and Troy held a press conference to criticize the draft plan’s proposal to split the five Capital District cities between two districts. The revised plan keeps all of them except Amsterdam in the new 20th district.

Cervas, in a commentary accompanying the final maps, said the new 20th district connects Albany with “the culturally and economically connected city of Saratoga Springs,” which the original draft would have put in Stefanik’s district.

“I was not able to include Amsterdam, given the population constraints and the requirement to consider county subdivision boundaries,” he wrote.

Tonko said Cervas appears not to understand the employment and lifestyle patterns of Capital District residents.

“This does not make for a fairer map or a more representative district,” Tonko said in a statement. “As the outpouring of feedback this week showed, citizens of Amsterdam are fully part of our Capital Region community, regardless of what one post-grad from Pennsylvania thinks.”
In the New York City area, the court-appointed expert made some revisions in response to accusations that his first draft had divided communities with common cultural and racial identities.

“The maps now reflect a deeper understanding of minority and other communities,” said Susan Lerner, the director of Common Cause New York, in a press release.

Lerner and other observers said Cervas placed a strong emphasis on keeping districts geographically compact.

But the new 19th district stretching from Columbia County to Ithaca represents the most geographically altered congressional district in the state, according to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.


Data on local districts
The new 19th district has a 1.74-percentage-point voter enrollment advantage for Democrats, compared with 4.2 percentage points in the current 19th district, according to data from Cervas. President Biden carried the new 19th district by 1.5 percentage points in the 2020 election, compared with his 4.7-percentage-point margin in the current 19th District.

The new 20th district includes all of Saratoga, Albany and Schenectady counties as well as the cities of Troy and Rensselaer in Rensselaer County. The district has a 14.7-percentage-point Democratic enrollment advantage, according to Cervas, compared with 19 percentage points in the current 20th district. Democratic presidential candidates carried the district in 2016 and 2020 by an average margin of 5.6 percentage points.

Tonko, the Democratic incumbent who plans to run in the reconfigured district, is facing a challenge from Republican Liz Joy, a former blogger and speaker from Schenectady who lost to Tonko in 2020.

The new 21st Congressional District, where Stefanik plans to run for re-election, includes all or part of 15 counties, including Warren, Washington and most of Rensselaer. The district has a 12.6-percentage-point Republican enrollment advantage, compared with 11.5 percentage points in the current 21st district. Former President Donald Trump carried the new district by 12.6 percentage points in 2020, compared with 10.6 percentage points in the current 21st district.
Alex DeGrasse, a senior adviser to Stefanik, said in a statement that the new 21st district is covered by four media markets, Albany, Plattsburgh/Burlington, Watertown and Utica -- one more than in previous campaigns, which will make it more costly to run in.

Two candidates are seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Stefanik: Matt Castelli, a former CIA counterterrorism official from the town of Saratoga, and Matt Putorti, a lawyer from Whitehall.

Lerner, of Common Cause, said this year’s redistricting rollercoaster demonstrates that the state needs to adopt a fully nonpartisan map-making process before the 2030 census.

“If New York lawmakers want to make sure this chaos never happens again, they must advance an amendment that enshrines a citizen-led redistricting process — based on the gold standard in California, Michigan, Syracuse and elsewhere — into the constitution now,” she said. “New Yorkers deserve a thoughtful, transparent and inclusive redistricting process run by citizens that reflects all New Yorkers’ input and lived experiences — not this mess.”