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How Hakeem Jeffries was Gerrymandered Out of His Own District and Other True Tales

The documentary, "Gerrymandering" was followed by a panel discussion on pending legislation at the Brooklyn Public Library Wednesday night.

When Prospect Heights Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries considered to running for state Assembly against Roger Green in 2002, after making a strong showing in the 2000 election, he was gerrymandered out of his own district.

This was one of the many examples of gerrymandering brought to light during a screening of the documentary by the same name followed by a panel discussion at the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library Wednesday night.

On the panel was Jeff Reichert, the movie's creator, JeffriesSenator Daniel Squadron and Lincoln Restler, 57th assembly district leader and a member of the New Kings Democrats. The decennial process of redistricting is set to begin in April of 2011, and redistricting reform is becoming an increasingly urgent issue.

There is pending legislation in Albany that will attempt to end the practice of gerrymandering by creating a bi-partisan panel to redraw district lines every 10 years, and the panelists, all of whom support the legislation, urged the audience to call their representatives in support of the bill.

The evening begain with a screening of the film "Gerrymandering," which explains the countless ways in which redistricting has provided a gigantic loophole to ensure reelection for individual representatives, as well as preserve a party’s majority within the legislature.

The film focuses on  California’s Prop 11 campaign but also includes such cases as the 53 Democrats who took refuge in Oklahoma to prevent redistricting favoring Republicans in Texas and prison-based gerrymandering (using a prison population to create a district) in a small town in Anamosa, Iowa, where 96% of the district is incarcerated and thus unable to vote.

The message of the film is clear: Politicians have been using redistricting to their advantage for decades.

When we picture a map, we only see state lines,” said Reichert. But within the fixed boundaries of the states, there is an incredible, invisible map that shifts every ten years, he said.

The film shows that when Obama was a state senator, he redrew his own district to include a white, liberal, upper-class population, which he knew would be an essential base in a state-wide U.S. Senate race.  

After the film, the panelists discussed the upcoming redrawing of the lines, and the push for change that is taking place across the nation. About 660,000 copies of Gerrymandering were distributed during the campaign for Prop 20, another redistricting reform bill passed in California.

In New York, there are seven districts that take advantage of prison populations (mostly upstate). Jeffries predicts that this reform will mean a smaller rural conservative representation in a state that’s largely urban.

Jeffries and Squadron have been long time advocates of independent redistricting (cutting political ties to redistricting so that the process is as non-partisan as possible), and Governor Cuomo is anxious to put reform in place before April.

Cuomo’s proposed bill hands the power over to a bipartisan commission, appointed by the legislature. This would decrease the influence of legislators (although not completely) in the redistricting process, and the equal representation of both parties would hopefully mean fairer results.

Squadron and Jeffries have high hopes for change, since a vast majority of the state senate pledged to advocate redistricting reform. But there is a reason reform hasn’t taken place in the past. Senators anxious to keep their jobs may back out of their promise, despite potential public scrutiny.

If creatively redrawing district lines is what’s keeping them in power, than changing that system may take more than just a pledge. Still, the panelists remained optimistic, constantly pointing out that more people are noticing the inconsistencies than ever before.

“The environment has never been better for it,” Squadron said. The discussion was cut short by the ever persistent clock, and as the crowd shuffled to the exits, Restler made his final call to arms. “Brooklyn is the largest county in the state. When we speak with one voice, we can make things happen.”

Amy Sara Clark contributed to this story.

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