Now that the District Attorney who couldn’t indict a ham sandwich will be our congressional representative for at least the next year and a half, it’s time to ask: how did we get stuck in a congressional district with Staten Island?
Historically, Staten Island was Lower Manhattan’s problem: as far back as the turn of the 20th century, New York State’s 8th district encompassed Richmond County as well as the tip of New York County, up to about W. 3rd Street. At the same time, Bay Ridge was a piece of the 5th district with present-day Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, Sunset Park, Borough Park, Kensington, Flatbush, East Flatbush, Crown Heights, and even parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant.
But maps are redrawn at least every 10 years, based on new census data; the constitution requires all districts to be roughly the same size, so as populations fluctuate, district borders change. (States also often gain or lose seats as state populations grow or decline.) The first time in modern history that Bay Ridge and Staten Island linked up was for the congressional elections of 1952, when the two, as well as Dyker Heights and parts of Sunset Park, constituted the 15th district. But ten years later we were drawn back into Brooklyn, joining up with Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights, Dyker Heights, and slivers of the neighborhoods in between. But they were split again in 1962, joined in 1970, and broken up again for the next election.
In 1972, Staten Island was still/again Lower Manhattan’s problem, and Bay Ridge was still part of the 15th district, which had become what looks to us now as a glorious district just for its sensible borders: it was a western Brooklyn district, from Red Hook and Park Slope all the way down to Bath Beach and Dreier–Offerman Park. For most of the next decade, the neighborhood was represented by local Leo C. Zeferetti, a former corrections officer.
But after the 1980 census, things changed. According to a New York Times article from March of 1982:
[Zeferetti’s] Bay Ridge district…would be attached to Staten Island, where political attitudes are, indeed, insular, and the incumbent, Representative Guy V. Molinari, a Republican, is popular.
”So they pitch two Italians in against each other,” Mr. Zeferetti said. His current district needs to add some voters, and some Democratic legislators told him that they could not find a nearby neighborhood that would not be full of predominantly liberal Jewish voters who would be likely to beat the conservative Mr. Zeferetti in a primary.
”And,” he said, ”I told them, ‘Look, you give me a district where I have a 50-50 shot and let me worry about it.’ ” Instead, they gave him Staten Island.
That year, Zefiretti lost to Molinari, ushering in a period of almost uninterrupted Republican rule of the district, which ever since has included residents on both sides of the Verrazano. When Molinari went on to become borough president (and basically the king of Staten Island politics), his daughter Susan took over, until she resigned in the 90s to take a job with CBS; that’s when Vito Fossella took over, for 12 years, until he decided not to seek reelection when it turned out he drove drunk and had a secret second family. After that, for two years, Democrat Michael McMahon held the seat, but he quickly lost to Michael Grimm, who held the seat until pleading guilty to a federal crime.
And now we have Dan Donovan.
Which leaves many Bay Ridge residents, at least the few who bother to vote, feeling disenfranchised—that we will always be represented by conservative Staten Island’s choice for congress, because they’re bigger than we ever can be. So how can we get back into a district with Brooklyn? That’s up to our representatives in the state government, who will have to redraw the maps in 2022, from 2020 census data. There’s no point carping about it now; our current state representatives might not even be our state representatives anymore by the time the next redistricting comes around. But after the 2018 election, we will need to remember to put pressure on our then-assemblymembers and state senators to let someone else wear the political albatross that is Staten Island for a little while.
It will require real pressure. “Staten Island has to join with someone,” as my colleague Bob explained it to me, “and as long as the GOP controls one house in Albany, they will always use Staten Island to neutralize the liberal vote in some other part of the city. Happens to be us.” But does it have to be us forever? By 2022, we will have borne the burden of Staten Island for four consecutive decades.
Let someone else take a turn.
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