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New York Democrats Crack Asian Neighborhoods in Queens to Save Incumbents
Blockbuster growth in the city's Asian communities prevented New York from losing a second congressional district in 2020. But the state's Democratic leadership isn't feeling especially grateful.
The results of the 2020 census showed that the population of New York City increased by 7.7 percent over the last decade, driven in large part by growth in the city’s Asian immigrant communities. This trend was especially pronounced in Queens, where the number of Asian residents surged to more than 700,000, and now accounts for over a quarter of the borough’s population. For the first time ever, whites are no longer the largest racial group, having been eclipsed by both Asians and Hispanics. Unsurprisingly, Queens was also the site of important milestones in Asian political representation during this period.
In 2012, Ron Kim was elected to a Flushing-based seat in the New York State Assembly, becoming the first Korean-American to ever serve in Albany. In 2020, Zohran Mamdani and Jenifer Rajkumar became the first people of South Asian descent ever elected to public office in New York City after winning assembly seats in Astoria and Woodhaven, respectively. The first South Asian man to ever serve on the City Council, Shekar Krishnan, was elected in Jackson Heights just last year. One reason for the late achievement of so many of these ‘firsts’ in Queens is that for the past ten years, its political boundaries have unfairly limited the power of Asian voters.
After redistricting in 2012, Queens was divided into 18 districts in the State Assembly and seven districts in the State Senate. With respect to the assembly, the number of districts where white or black residents constituted a majority or a decisive plurality was roughly proportional to their share of the borough’s population. There probably should have been another majority-Hispanic district, but to be fair to the mapmakers, it’s hard to achieve exact proportionality when each seat has to contain almost six percent of the borough’s population. At the end of the day, the outcomes for white, black, and Hispanic residents were more or less reasonable.
But the same couldn’t be said for Asian communities. Only two assembly districts - 11 percent of the borough’s total - were majority-Asian, even though Asians made up nearly 23 percent of its population. Moreover, there was only one other district where Asians accounted for more than 30 percent of residents, but there were five where Asians accounted for between 20 and 30 percent of residents. This meant that Asian New Yorkers were important constituencies in many assembly districts, but decisive in only one or two. No other racial group had its vote diluted in such a manner.
In the State Senate, legislators drew two majority-black districts while limiting whites, Hispanics and Asians to one seat each where they occupied the top spot. Given that each group accounted for a significantly larger share of the borough’s population than black New Yorkers, this knocked demographic representation off kilter in the upper chamber as well.
After the conclusion of the 2020 census, activists and organizations representing Asian New Yorkers launched a campaign to persuade Albany to end this decade of disenfranchisement in the redistricting process that followed. The effort was led by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a nonprofit that specializes in this sort of work. To learn more about their advocacy, I spoke with Jerry Vattamala, the director of AALDEF’s Democracy Program and the campaign’s lead organizer.
He told me that AALDEF began by working with partner organizations in the city’s Asian neighborhoods to identify “communities of interest” - a somewhat nebulous term referring to geographically compact groups of people who share common policy concerns, and who would benefit from sharing common political boundaries too. Oftentimes, a single community of interest is not large enough to constitute an entire district on its own. Similar communities can be grouped together to achieve the desired effect - provided their interests are sufficiently aligned. But deciding which groups belong where can be challenging and subjective.
When it comes to both their material interests and their policy preferences, “not all Asian communities necessarily fit together,” Vattamala explains. “So we work with neighborhood groups to go down to the street level and determine where these boundaries lie.” In total, AALDEF identified 16 communities of interest across the city’s entire Asian population. Then, it worked with other voting rights organizations representing people of color - collectively dubbed the “Unity Map Coalition” - to mock up their own suggestions for district boundaries. Finally, the coalition began lobbying for these communities to be kept together in a way that reflected their cohesiveness.
In Queens, the coalition focused on three main blocs of Asian residents: 1) South Asian communities in the borough’s northeast, mostly Hindu and Sikh Punjabis, as well as Muslim Bangladeshis; 2) South Asian communities in South Queens, mostly Guyanese and Indo-Carribean, as well as Sikh Punjabis; and 3) East Asian and Himalayan communities in the southwest, mostly Chinese, Korean, and Tibetan. Even ten years ago, it was clear that these blocs had been aggressively gerrymandered. The situation in South Queens, where South Asians were segmented into a whopping seven different assembly districts, was particularly egregious. A decade of demographic change had only made the injustice even starker.
Initially, the coalition thought its chances for success were high. In 2014, voters approved changes to the state constitution that created an Independent Redistricting Commission responsible for drawing the state’s political boundaries, in order to reduce partisan influence over the process. The commission boasted a number of mechanisms for considering public input, which the coalition used to make its case. Ultimately, the body found them persuasive. Even when the Democratic and Republican commissioners failed to reach a consensus and sent dueling sets of maps to the legislature, both sets largely conformed to AALDEF’s suggestions with respect to Asian communities of interest. But this week, it all fell apart.
Under New York’s constitution, if none of the commission’s maps are approved by a two-thirds majority of the state legislature, lawmakers are empowered to disregard its recommendations and come up with their own plan. Last month, that’s exactly what happened, and the process fell back into the hands of Albany’s Democratic leadership. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins then hammered out a deal in secret with no input from the public. When they debuted the final product this week, it was clear that they prioritized safeguarding incumbents over providing adequate representation for their constituents.
“These maps have incumbency protection written all over them,” Vattamala told me. He added that the new boundaries are doubly galling because not only do they fail to address the apportionment problems from the last round of redistricting, they barely acknowledge any of the new growth across the city’s Asian communities in the subsequent decade. “It was Asian growth in New York City that prevented the state from losing a second congressional seat, but that growth isn’t reflected in these maps.”
Demographic data for the new boundaries shows that Queens added just one other majority-Asian assembly district, for a total of three. This wouldn’t have been adequate to reflect the Asian share of the borough’s population ten years ago, when it was 22.8 percent. Today, it’s 27.3 percent, and the malapportionment remains as bad as it was in 2012. Moreover, Vattamala says that to create this new seat - encompassing the East Asian and Himalayan communities of Southwest Queens - Albany wound up cracking nearby Hispanic neighborhoods. Queens now has one fewer majority-Hispanic district than it did in 2012, even though the Hispanic population has increased.
According to Vattamala, this was unnecessary; AALDEF’s plan created a new Asian seat in this area without sacrificing an existing Hispanic one. But preserving all that diversity would have exposed state assemblymen like Jeff Aubrey and Brian Barnwell to potential primary challenges, and the imperative to protect incumbents superseded all other considerations.
But the most flagrant insults were borne by the borough’s South Asian communities. Previously, large numbers of Hindu and Sikh Punjabis in the neighborhoods of Queens Village, Bellrose, Floral Park, and Glen Oaks were grouped together in Assembly District 24 - though they were separated from similar communities of interest in adjacent seats. But under the new maps, the Punjabis themselves have been cleaved in half and jettisoned out of AD-24 and into two separate districts, further undermining their electoral clout. “That whole area was chopped up even worse than it was before,” Vattamala explains.
The prime beneficiary of this maneuver is David Weprin, the incumbent assemblyman in AD-24 and scion of a Queens political dynasty. Weprin has survived in this seat well past his expiration date thanks to the preposterous gerrymanders bestowed on him by Democratic leadership in Albany. It’s no accident that Jaslin Kaur, the charismatic socialist and daughter of Sikh Punjabi immigrants who nearly won the overlapping City Council seat last year, was drawn out of Weprin’s district. Not only does this insulate him from a potential primary, it compromises NYC-DSA’s organizing efforts in East Queens, which had started to pay dividends just last year.
Vattamala says the situation in South Queens is arguably worse than before too. Though its South Asian communities are now dispersed across only three assembly districts rather than seven, this still leaves them unable to exercise real influence in any one of them. Only at the State Senate level were most of these communities allowed to occupy a single district, but the larger size of those districts still leaves Asian electoral power seriously diluted. Moreover, the senate district they now occupy is also the one serving as the borough’s designated dumping ground for white reactionary voters. When I observe that this seat contains the most right-wing neighborhoods in Queens, Vattamala goes further.
“It’s not just that they’re right-wing. I’d say the real problem is that they’re racist,” he tells me. “These are the same people who chased Felicia Singh out of a campaign event - physically intimidated her into leaving.” In 2021, Singh was the Democratic nominee for City Council in the 32nd district - one of the last Republican strongholds in Queens. Though Democrats have long struggled there, the vitriol directed toward Singh was particularly intense. Shortly before Election Day, supporters of her Republican opponent gathered outside a campaign rally she was holding with Senator Chuck Schumer. After a man was heard saying that “he wished he had a gun and that all Democrats should be shot,” attendees were forced to disperse.
While the Unity Map Coalition played the outside game, they had at least one ally inside the State Assembly: Zohran Mamdani, the first South Asian man to ever serve in it. I spoke with Mamdani earlier today to learn more about how he tried to influence the redistricting process. He told me that he advocated for three major priorities: 1) brining the entirety of the Hillside Avenue corridor into AD-24 to unite the area’s Punjabi and Bangladeshi communities; 2) uniting the Guyanese, Indo-Caribbean and Punjabi communities in Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park into a single assembly district; and 3) a unified assembly district for Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, encompassing the city’s largest Arab population.
“All of my advocacy centered around empowering communities that have previously been shut out of the political process because of how the maps have been drawn,” Mamdani told me. “I made those priorities clear in collective discussions we had as a Democratic conference, and in private discussions I had with LATFOR,” the body tasked with drawing the new boundaries. He even brought in his own maps to show them what exactly he meant by “uniting” these communities - precinct by precinct. But he says that the opaque nature of the process made it next to impossible for most members to even know what was happening, let alone affect the outcome.
“The only map I ever saw was my own district last Thursday - that’s all any member saw before everything was announced publicly,” Mamdani explains. This approach foreclosed any possibility of meaningful negotiation, let alone public input. At the end of the day, he says that leadership believes the new maps are a big improvement over the status quo, given the technical and political obstacles that figure into redistricting. But Mamdani was not persuaded. When the new maps came up for a vote earlier today, he was one of only a handful of Democratic members to vote against them.
“It’s true that this is a slight improvement, but it’s just not good enough,” Mamdani concludes. “I couldn’t sit there and ratify something that flies in the face of what these communities wanted and what they deserved. As the first South Asian man to serve in the assembly - which is a title I take a lot of pride in - I couldn’t vote for a plan that goes against the whole reason I fought for that title, the whole reason I’m there.”