Interview: NYC Districting Commission Chair Dennis Walcott

Redistricting Commission
NYC Districting Commission Chair Dennis Walcott

On July 21 the New York City Districting Commission released a preliminary set of draft lines that could form the basis of the city’s 51 City Council districts reflecting population shifts following the 2020 Census while adhering to a number of city, state, and federal mandates like the protections of the federal Voting Rights Act.

Additionally, the commission was tasked with dividing the 2020 census city population of roughly 8.8 million people and by the 51 districts which came to ​​approximately 172,882 residents for each district. In redrawing the maps, they could only deviate of the 172,882 figure by 5%.

The preliminary map release came after public hearings in all five boroughs, and now it will move back to another round of public hearings in the boroughs on Aug. 15, 16, 17, 18 and 22 before the final map is submitted to the city council on Sept. 22. While the city council can ask for revisions, it is the Redistricting Commission that makes the final decision.

The commission is made of of 15 members including seven mayoral appointees, five City Council Democratic majority appointees and three of the City Council’s Republican minority appointees. Joshua Schneps, one of the commissioners, is CEO and publisher of Schneps Media, which owns PoliticsNY. 

The final map will go into effect in February 2023 with all 51 seats on the ballot with the new district lines later in the year.

The following edited interview with New York City Council Redistricting Commission Chair Dennis Walcott was conducted over the phone.  Walcott is a former Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, and is currently president and chief executive officer of Queens Public Library.

PoliticsNY: Can you provide some general comments on how the commission process went?

Dennis Walcott (DW): I always try to start with context. And as you know, it being 2020 census the numbers in New York City increased significantly by roughly 629,000- 630,000 people. And so you had an increase in the overall population and yet, the deviation [of how much one city council district representation can be from any other] went down to 5% as compared to 10% form the last census. And I always think that’s important because you’re working with a really large number of individuals and [the city] increased significantly in the Asian American population and the Hispanic population, and declined in the white and black population, and you still have 51 council districts. So from a process point, that’s what we’re starting with, in addition to obviously, what’s built into the charter, as well as the guidelines of one person, one vote as far as constitution is concerned. All of those factors play in place as well as Voting Rights Act.

So we took a very detailed look at those issues and challenges at the same time, the responsibility of putting in place new maps. And that context, I think, is so important. I think one of the other key things is that the process of the commissioners and the staff really were a way of getting into the details without really having any preconceived notions and allowing the process to unfold naturally. 

So that type of background really guided us as far as how the mapping process took place. And taking a look as we’ve always indicated, the preliminary plan and what it means for the city, and knowing that we were going to get feedback in our second round of hearings to take place in the middle of August. 

We had hearings in all five boroughs and we made a conscious decision at the front end not to just go with one general hearing but we felt it was important to have borough hearings in all five boroughs before the process of that map drawing and discussions took place. So that way we could hear the feedback from the various communities, including elected officials as well. And we had I think close to 500 plus responses as far as people giving feedback, and it was both in person and virtually. And that helped inform a number of decisions that were made as we went along. I think was a very healthy part. of the process. 

The next phase is really again, taking a look at the preliminary maps that have been put out there, get feedback from the community and having hearings in all five boroughs with a public input as well as again getting feedback from the various advocacy groups and individuals. We want that feedback to help guide us and that would be the next step that we’re taking. And we’re looking forward to that process.

PoliticsNY: Alright, so let’s get into a few specifics. In south Brooklyn you created an Asian district, reducing the City Council Member Justin Brannan’s current 43rd District and potentially setting up a showdown between Brannan and City Council Member Alexis Avilés…

DW: You know, it’s interesting because we just took a look at the areas and what it meant and as far as you indicated there is a significant increase in the Asian population [there], especially the voting age population in the proposed district, which is 57% Asian. But getting into which district I personally I don’t have that right at my fingertips.

But I was gonna respond to what I thought I just heard you say is that we did not and still do not look at the individual council member of particular district. We did not weigh in as far as who’s the person in that district. We didn’t take a look at where a council person actually lives as well. So none of those types of data points were really discussed as far as taking a look at the mapping process. 

PoliticsNY: Understood. But both Brannan and Avilés allege that the commission created a super Asian district at the expense of the large Hispanic neighborhoods of Red Hook and Sunset Park. Can you respond to that?

DW: If that’s their belief, then they have a right to articulate that belief. That was not the intent at all. We took a look at the numbers. We took a look at the populations and it was not to have one compete against another or to undermine another. And so again, that’s something as we move forward to hear what people have to say about that. And also I know the staff will be meeting with the various Council delegations in this round similar to what they did in the last round, and, you know, factor those things in but again, there’ll be a lot of people who have both positive things to say and things they want us to improve on. And so we want to hear that type of feedback.

PoliticsNY: What convinced the Districting Commission to take Roosevelt Island and a 20-block chunk of the Upper East Side and move it into a Queens district?

DW: So part of that is also numbers. We had to take a look at the numbers of a particular area and what it means as far as fulfilling the requirements we had to fill for 5% deviation purposes, and also making sure that we were able to have the numbers match up and I know there’s been feedback around that as well. And we look forward again to hearing the feedback and if people have a better sense of how things should be done, we want people to respond that way. But it’s all based on the analysis of the numbers and the standards we had to meet and for that particular area, and we’re trying to fit it in. That’s how we analyzed it. And again, it’s a preliminary plan. So we had to move on to add Roosevelt Island to parts of the east side and into Queens district 26. But we value that feedback. We value the sensitivity that people bring to their respective communities. And that’s the process again, we want to emphasize to the public, we want that engagement and that helps split us helps us make those type of decisions.

Anyone who would like to submit testimony on the 51 city council maps can write to the commission at [email protected].

The commission’s timeframe for submitting a final plan to the City Clerk is Feb. 7, 2023.

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