As the deadline for a decision on the Monroe County redistricted map approaches, both supporters and opponents at a recent public hearing appeared resigned to and preparing for an inevitable impasse and the possibility of the courts making the final decision.
County Executive Adam Bello has until Nov. 20 to take action on the proposed Crescent map, which passed the Legislature by a vote of 17 to 12 last month. Bello appears poised to veto the measure, echoing an action he took in January due to a proposed plan’s lack of transparency and chance for public input. In previous statements, he has called the Crescent map “deeply flawed” and said it would “dilute minority voting rights.”
That veto could be overridden by a vote in the county Legislature, but Crescent map supporters likely would not have the votes to succeed. Instead, the proceedings could be headed to the courts where an independent judge or special master would make the final ruling.
Earlier this year, a special master was appointed for the congressional, state Assembly and state Senate maps. The process of creating new maps in that case took about a month in total. A court might end up ruling in favor of the Crescent map or Bello’s proposal.
The county redistricting process has taken over 13 months with a failed effort for an independent redistricting committee, multiple proposed maps, protests, conferences, and plenty of harsh rhetoric. All this played into a public hearing on redistricting last week.
On one side, supporters of the Crescent map include all 14 Republican legislators along with Democrats President Sabrina LaMar and Legislator Rachel Barnhart. Other defenders of the Crescent map include individuals and organizations such as Rev. Myra Brown, founder of Spiritus Christi’s Racial Justice Ministry, SPARC; Brighton Town Board member Robin Wilt; lawyer and former congressional candidate Nate McMurray; ROC Acts; the Poor People’s Campaign; and the Urban League of Rochester.
Their view is based on an interpretation of the Gingles test, which comes from the U.S. Supreme Court decision Thornburg v. Gingles, as well as accusations that county Democrats are seeking a supermajority and trying to protect legislators from competitive primaries by minority candidates. Crescent map supporters see their efforts as a strike against the historical disenfranchisement of Black voters in Rochester.
“If ‘Black Lives Matter,’ then the Black vote must matter,” said Brown at the public hearing, calling on Bello to approve the Crescent map. “We marched in the streets together, and we chanted ‘Black Lives Matter,’ but we appear to have a limited allegiance and understanding of the decisions needed to solidify and affirm that belief.”
According to data from Dave’s Redistricting App, the Crescent map would create five districts in the city with more than 50 percent Black voting age population: Districts 22, 24, 25, 28, and 29. Bello’s map, which was presented in October, has two districts with over 50 percent Black VAP.
While the approved map has five Black districts, the Crescent map coalition plans to sue for six with the Department of Justice if Bello carries out the veto.
On the other side of this fight are the 13 other Democratic county legislators and Bello himself. They think the Crescent plan dilutes the voting power of minorities, especially among the Hispanic population.
Based on the views of redistricting electoral experts and their interpretations of the Voting Rights Act, Bello and his allies believe the map should create effective minority or “crossover districts” focused on electing minority voters’ candidates of choice. The Bello map presented in October has six districts with over 50 percent Black and Hispanic VAP: Districts 21, 22, 25, 27, 28 and 29. The Crescent map has five districts that fall within those parameters.
Experts say redistricting is a case-by-case situation and effective minority districts do not require 50 percent of one demographic group as “a magic number.” An analysis by Lisa Handley, a voting rights and redistricting expert who has worked for the Department of Justice and ACLU, found that Districts 22, 25, 27, 28 and 29 were effectively Black districts, meaning that among Black voters, their candidates of choice have now and historically been able to be elected.
“Increasing the Black voting-age population to make these crossover districts majority Black is unconstitutional,” said Handley at an October press conference, referencing U.S. Supreme Court case Cooper v. Harris, where redistricting plans in North Carolina were determined to pack Black voters. “And it would certainly dilute the strength of Black voters by unnecessarily packing them into few districts and lessening their ability to have an impact on surrounding districts.”
Crescent map supporters have decried the electoral experts as outsiders and lobbyists. Handley has been accused of reducing the power of Black voting districts in Michigan, where she served as a consultant.
The Crescent map has a large vocal following evident in the number of supportive organizations, social media presence, website, and YouTube page. However, not every local activist in the community is on board, which was on display at the redistricting public hearing last week.
“While I can’t claim to speak for all opponents of the Crescent map, I can assure you—and I’ll only do it this once, because I don’t feel the need to defend myself against these allegations—Rebecca Johnson, my husband James and I, are not by any stretch of the imagination, racists,” said Shirley Thompson, who is a member of Elders and Allies, the Police Accountability Board Alliance, and Black Women’s Leadership Forum. She was expressing personal views at the hearing.
“In my opinion, being an anti-racist can, and should be, a broad role. To me, it means being pro-Black and an advocate for the entire community. They’re not mutually exclusive,” she continued, drawing a connection between her time as a school board member in 2004 and today.
At that time, Thompson believes, her public support of Domingo Garcia, a Latino man, for a position on the board had detrimental effects to her and her husband’s standing in Black political circles. She was banned from the Black Elected Officials and Leaders Coalition and her husband’s yoga program was shut down, something she saw as a way for “power brokers” to maintain control of relationships in the Black community.
“It has been suggested by some that opponents of the Crescent map are, quote unquote, ‘carrying the water’ of politicians. That is, doing their bidding,” Thompson said. “Whose behavior reflects carrying someone’s water and doing the bidding of politicians in the scenario I just described?”
Other critics of the Crescent map have also noted the vitriol and accusations based on their stances. Legislator Rickey Frazier, who is Black, has mentioned his disappointment after being called a “bastard” because of his opposition.
Crescent map supporter Brown did not back down at the public hearing.
“There are people who believe that you can make racist remarks but not be a racist. There are people who believe you can support racist policies and not support white supremacy. I’m not one of those people,” she said.
“Engaging in white fragility, or any levels of fragility, is not helpful and that’s what’s happening here,” she continued. “When I name it, people get fragile: ‘Oh my god, she called me a racist!’ But I’m calling us to transformative work because that’s what we’re supposed to be. We’re supposed to be one human family that gets it right. Or at least make an effort to get it right.”
Crescent map supporters have leveled grievances at their opponents as well. A letter sent by McMurray to the U.S. attorney general requesting an investigation into Monroe County Democrats mentions a number of complaints. Legislator Mercedes Simmons Vasquez, for example, is cited as harassing Barnhart by sitting and taking photos of her and mocking a pro-Crescent supporter on Facebook.
However, Crescent map supporters have also used social media to cajole the other side, with Wilt taking shots on Facebook at Legislator William Burgess at a pro-Bello press conference.
Running out of time
Some people see the crossfire among Democrats as a distraction from the Republican Party’s strategy.
“By taking this local stand, (the Republicans) can appear to be advocating for Black voting rights without risking without losing any legislative seats in city districts that always vote Democratic anyway,” said Rebecca Johnson, a volunteer at the United Christian Leadership Ministry who was speaking on behalf of herself at the hearing. “(Republicans) gain an opportunity to falsely vilify Executive Bello and the County Democratic caucus, to weaken local Democrats by instigating and aggravating inner conflict, and to change District 21 from a district with significant numbers of minority voters into yet another one of the county’s solidly white legislative districts.”
Johnson supports Bello’s plan, calling the six minority effective districts an opportunity for greater Hispanic voter power: “True social justice.”
Regardless of plans by the other party, these extended proceedings could have negative effects on the logistics of the 2023 races. Since petitions and signatures are required to run before an election is held, the map should be finalized well in advance, but some fear time is running out for that possibility.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who can tell us as to what will happen in a courtroom or how long it will take. And tick tock, the calendar is running out,” said Dave Garretson, a former chairman of the Monroe County Democratic Committee, at the hearing. “We are getting to the timeframe in which we will have legislators running in districts which do not exist. That’s the risk we run by going to court.”
Echoing other speakers’ sentiments, including those both pro and anti-Crescent map, Garretson asked both sides to come together to formulate a solution rather than have a special master or lawsuit take more time away from the process.
If the camps are to draw up a compromise map, it will have to be in less than a week and before Bello’s final decision on redistricting.