Northern Manhattan has long been united in a single Congressional district, which for the past 30 years has been represented by the genial, gravelly-voiced Charles Rangel. With strong support in both the African-American stronghold of Harlem and the predominantly Dominican neighborhoods of Washington Heights and Inwood, Rangel has cruised to reelection with overwhelming electoral majorities.
But as New York State prepares to draw new legislative districts following the 2010 census, the growing Latino population of northern Manhattan has prompted civic groups to propose sweeping changes to the area’s political map. Most would dramatically redraw the boundaries of Rangel’s 15th Congressional district, dropping Washington Heights and extending into the Bronx and Westchester to create a plurality of African-American voters. Others envision the district largely retaining its present shape and becoming home to a new Latino-majority seat.
Either way, Rangel’s district is poised for a major transformation.
Rangel said his greatest concern is that the majority of the district stays in Manhattan. “The district has to remain in New York County,” Rangel told the New York World. “Harlem will never have to go to the Bronx to see its Congressman.”
The backdrop for the proposed changes is the rapid growth of the Latino population in northern Manhattan. Historically, Rangel’s district was mostly African-American, anchored by Harlem. By the time of the 2010 census, Rangel’s constituents were 46 percent Latino and only 26 percent black. This historic shift has led racial and ethnic advocacy organizations to submit a flurry of competing plans to ensure that their communities are adequately represented.
The Dominican American National Roundtable (DANR), a nonprofit advocacy group that seeks to empower people with origins or ancestry in the Dominican Republic, is one of several organizations that have proposed broad changes to the election map. DANR’s map would create a knobby, elongated 15th district that unites Harlem with the northern Bronx and Westchester, connected by a narrow corridor that runs through Inwood Park at the northern tip of Manhattan. Its new 15th district would be 41 percent African-American and roughly one-quarter Latino.
Not coincidentally, DANR’s map would also create a new 14th district that would be not only overwhelmingly Latino but also majority Dominican. Maria Teresa Feliciano, the president of DANR, said there are roughly 250,000 Dominicans in Washington Heights and 300,000 in the Bronx. If united in a single district as proposed by DANR, these populations would constitute a solid majority, since each Congressional district will contain about 717,000 residents.
Feliciano said DANR’s maps were guided by the desire to prevent any minority group from losing representation. “The principle is we can both have our space,” she said, in reference to her group’s proposal to maintain a heavily African-American seat alongside the mostly Dominican 14th district. “We don’t as a minority want to increase our representation by decreasing another minority’s representation.”
Rangel said Dominican elected officials had assured him of this point at a meeting this Thursday morning. “They made it abundantly clear that their long-term ambition to be in Congress is not anything that is going to put them in conflict with me,” he said.
Rangel said he was not opposed to including parts of the Bronx in his district, but that a majority of Democratic county committee seats within the district should remain within New York County. County committee seats are the lowest level of party leadership, and each corresponds to an election district. Retaining a Manhattan-based majority of county committee seats would ensure that the Manhattan Democratic party, rather than the party apparatus of another borough, would hold powers in the district that include selecting a candidate in the event of a special election.
The idea of moving much of the 15th district into the Bronx has also been endorsed by the NAACP New York State Conference, part of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the good-government group Common Cause. Like DANR’s, the NAACP’s map would create a narrow district that stretches as far north as Westchester, creating a 44 percent plurality of African-American voters. Under Common Cause’s more compact proposal the 15th district would join Harlem with the South Bronx, increasing the African-American share of the district’s population but putting Latinos in the majority.
The 15th district would be one of three Latino-majority seats that Common Cause has proposed for uptown Manhattan and the Bronx, seeking to reflect these areas’ increasingly Latino populations.
But one influential Latino group, LatinoJustice/PRLDEF, formerly the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, opposes extending Rangel’s district into the Bronx. Juan Cartagena, Latino Justice’s president, said his organization is against any plan that would decrease the Latino share of any district that has an existing Latino plurality or majority.
More concerned with the overall number of Latino majority districts than with creating a specifically Dominican seat, Cartagena cast doubts on whether an unusually shaped 15th district could stand up in a potential court challenge. “It’s one of the few areas of law where beauty counts,” Cartagena said of redistricting. “If it’s an oddly configured district that was gerrymandered to pick up as much of the black vote as possible, then it could very well be overturned.”
Although Latino Justice has not yet released its maps, Cartagena said the 15th district in fact represents most logical place for a new Latino majority seat, since it could gain a Latino majority with relatively small adjustments to its current boundaries.
Cartagena said Rangel has a strong relationship with the Latino community and could easily be reelected in a Latino majority district. But Rangel is 81 years old, and the new district lines would be place for another decade. Last year Rangel rejected a barrage of calls for his resignation by Republicans over alleged ethics violations in fundraising and failure to disclose income from rental properties.
The responsibility for drawing district lines is held by the Legislative Task Force on Reapportionment (LATFOR), a committee of state legislators. LATFOR has encouraged community organizations to submit maps and says it will consider them seriously. This Wednesday, LATFOR co-chair Jack McEneny (D-Albany) said the committee was looking to adopt unspecified “good parts” of Common Cause’s recent proposal. But LATFOR makes the final decisions, subject to revision by the courts if its electoral map is vetoed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Rangel said it was premature to draw any conclusions before it was even known who would be making the final decisions, and insisted that he could not influence the process. “My feelings haven’t got a damn thing to do with this,” Rangel said. “I’m just a big rock in a mountainous area. I can raise hell but I can’t call the shots on this.”