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Hudson Valley Progressives Grapple With Redistricting Chaos

For voters, New York’s new Congressional districts and two-part primary are a source of confusion. For local progressives, they might also be an opportunity.

Detail from a map of the new 2022 Congressional districts for New York State.

Voters who head to the polls in New York State on Tuesday may find a candidate they had planned to vote for missing from the ballot. It’s not a printing error: rather, it’s the result of a chaotic redistricting process, steered by the courts, that changed newly-created political maps at the last minute and forced the state to hold two separate primary elections. 

“It is confusing. I want to validate that it is confusing,” says state Senator Alessandra Biaggi, who decided to run for the new 17th Congressional district after it was created in late May. “Voters are used to consolidated primaries that are on the same day for all elections.”

This year, the primaries for governor and lieutenant governor, state Assembly, and judgeships take place today, Tuesday, June 28. Primaries for state Senate and the US House of Representatives will take place on Tuesday, August 23.

Some especially fierce contests are afoot in Democratic primaries this year, with incumbents pitted against each other and longtime politicians facing new challenges from the left. For progressives like Biaggi, who are vying to keep and build power in the Hudson Valley, out of the chaos of redistricting both new pitfalls and new opportunities can emerge. 

How We Got Here

In 2014, voters approved an amendment to the state constitution that sought to end partisan gerrymandering, the practice of drawing new electoral districts to benefit one party. The amendment also chartered an independent redistricting commission, the members of which were to be appointed by elected officials. 

But after the independent redistricting commission deadlocked on the new maps, they punted it to the Democrat-controlled state legislature. In a rare flex of power, they produced a heavily-gerrymandered new electoral map that could have added at least three Democratic seats to the House of Representatives — a widespread tactic in states with GOP-controlled legislatures. The Nation’s Ross Barkan called New York’s newer, bluer map “good news…during an otherwise dismal winter for the Democrats.” 

But the Democrat-friendly maps proved short-lived. A Republican-led coalition immediately challenged the new districts in a lawsuit filed in red Steuben County. In late April, the New York State Court of Appeals upheld the challenge and threw out the map. Their ruling upheld the earlier decision made by a Steuben County judge to appoint a special master, Carnegie Mellon postdoctoral fellow Jonathan Cervas, to redraw the map. It also pushed the date for congressional and state Senate primaries from June 28 to August 23. 

The first draft of the map rang alarm bells among progressives. In the Hudson Valley, Representatives Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones, both progressive Black men in their first terms, were looped into competition with each other in overlapping districts. Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), announced that he would abandon the 18th district—a mid-Hudson district that included Newburgh, Beacon, and Poughkeepsie—and run instead a little farther south in the new 17th, Jones’s district. 

After adjustments made over a brief feedback period—during which, Cervas told The River, he received thousands of comments from the public—final and binding maps were released just before midnight on Friday, May 20. Some of the most puzzling choices in the first draft were overturned: for example, Kingston, which had been split into two districts, was reunited into one.  

New Districts and New Candidacies

The weekend after the maps were released, Jones announced that he would run in the newly created 10th district in New York City, avoiding competition with Maloney or Bowman but bringing him into a crowded race that includes Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou and former New York City mayor Bill de Blasio. 

After consulting with Jones—who she considers a friend—State Senator Alessandra Biaggi decided to challenge Maloney in the new 17th district. For Biaggi, who grew up in Westchester, it was a matter of principle.

“Maloney is head of the DCCC, which means that it is his job to maximize the amount of seats that the Democrats have in Congress. He left his district, making it really susceptible to being won by a Republican, and went into a district that was a little easier to win,” she says. “He’s guided by a desire to win rather than a desire to protect the people he represents.”

Maloney left a confusing snarl of candidates vying for the new 18th district. Among them is Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan, who is running in the Democratic primary for the new 18th while also running in a special election to serve out the remainder of the term for Lieutenant Governor Antonio Delgado’s vacated seat in the old 19th. Ryan’s opponent in the special election, Republican Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, is also running in two races on August 23: the special election for the old 19th district, and the Republican primary for the new 19th. 

The Consequences of Confusion

If all of this sounds confusing, that’s because it is. 

The hastily redrawn districts—and subsequent reshuffling of candidacies and doubling of primary dates—is confounding to even the most plugged-in voters. To those less well-informed, who are especially critical to reach in a midterm election dependent on turnout, the chaos has been deeply confusing. Steve Rabinowitz, who is on the Lower Hudson Valley Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)’s steering committee, noted that some voters he’s spoken to while canvassing are unaware that a primary is coming up, let alone two. 

“It is really difficult to get people to vote even when they are excited to vote,” Biaggi says. “When it is not clear who is in the running, and when people should vote for them, it gets all that much harder to turn out the vote.”

Biaggi’s campaign is focused on “ground game”: door-knocking, making calls, sending texts, mailers, and holding meet-and-greets. She wagers that that repetition, and reaching out multiple times through different channels, is key.  “We are intending on doing a ton of outreach to make sure that people know when the vote is, and know to vote for us.” 

There’s also the challenge of voter fatigue, which has only grown since the mobilizing 2016 and 2020 elections. It is difficult to convince voters to turn out when campaign promises made by a party are not upheld (like codifying Roe), or when they see few changes in their lives that give them material reasons to do so. It is even more difficult to convince them when it is hard to untangle the basic details of the election. 

Sharon Cromwell, the Working Families Party’s New York State Deputy Director, says that the chaos of 2022 will continue to be felt in the years ahead. “The confusion voters feel undermines the electoral process in the eyes of so many New Yorkers. It will take some time to regain that trust.” 

The Progressive Path Forward

All of this puts progressives like Biaggi, Rabinowitz, and Cromwell in the difficult—yet familiar—position of fighting to keep the Democrats’ tenuous hold on the House while pushing the party towards more tangible priorities like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. For many, the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe last week only underscored the need for a robust opposition party that is willing to break political norms, if necessary, to protect peoples’ rights. 

“We need people in the frontlines of our democracy who are not going to take corporate dollars, Biaggi says. “People who can actually understand, anticipate, and react to the fact that the Republicans plan to attack so many people.”

Some progressives are unfazed by the drama of redistricting. “Lines are less important to our strategy than the candidates and underlying issues we are organizing around,” says Michaelangelo Pomarico, the co-chair of the Mid-Hudson Valley DSA. “If we have members ready to run for these seats and there is a path to victory we will likely pursue it.”

Still others see the new districts as a fresh opportunity. That’s the philosophy animating the Justice Democrats, the group that recruited Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to run in 2018: in their view, primaries present an opening to move the Democratic party to the left. In the wake of several high-profile progressive victories in 2018, many coalitions have formed around candidates unafraid to challenge even the most entrenched of incumbents. 

“Primaries are a critical part of the small-d democratic process,” says Rabinowitz. “Mainstream Democrats wanted to avoid primaries because they thought they were bad and divisive. But in many places, including in steadily Democratic counties like Westchester, the primary is the one time to express your views and pick a candidate that aligns with your views.”

In future elections, Rabinowitz wagers that the emergence of fresh districts will create openings for progressives. He also sees an opportunity in new maps that have pitted incumbents against each other, potentially upending long-established political patterns. 

“In our view, there are more likely to be primary challengers, which is a very good thing,” he says.