No redistricting year in modern times, in New York at least, has ever been like this one. A quasi-independent commission deadlocked, supposedly allowing the Democrat-run legislature to draw new congressional and state legislative districts. A Republican legal challenge led to all of those lines’ getting tossed in late April when the court appointed Jonathan Cervas, a postdoctoral fellow in the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University and an expert on electoral politics, as special master to draw maps that didn’t violate the state Constitution’s anti-gerrymandering clause.
At last, those maps have arrived. The many dozens of candidates that thought they were competing in one kind of district are now scrambling to adjust to a radically altered reality. Thanks to the courts, New York now also has two primary dates: one in late June for statewide and state Assembly races and another for congressional and state Senate contests. The result is political chaos.
The special master’s maps emphasized compactness and competitiveness, taking into account certain communities of interest—for example, the Chinese American population in lower Manhattan. Past precedent, incumbent advantage, and partisan lean were not considered to any great degree. This was bad news for national Democrats who were hoping the state legislature’s maps could insulate them from the coming Republican wave. While the districts are likely to be punishing in 2022, they could be more beneficial to Democrats in neutral or blue-wave years, potentially opening up new turf for competition in the future.
In the short term, there is much confusion and rage—along with a dab of excitement—among New York’s large political class. Opportunities have been simultaneously created and erased. New careers may be born in 2022—while others will abruptly come to an end.
For the first time in almost a century, the Upper East and West Sides of Manhattan will be joined in one congressional district, the 12th. Two titans of New York’s House delegation, Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney, will be pitted against each other in a Democratic primary poised to deeply divide the city’s political establishment. Both Maloney and Nadler first won election in 1992; Nadler chairs the House Judiciary Committee and Maloney chairs the House Oversight Committee.
Both have reliably liberal records, with the one crucial divergence being Nadler’s opposition to the Iraq War in 2003 and Maloney’s initial support. They each fall in the center-left mainstream of their party, with Nadler making a name for himself as a strong Israel hawk. The lone Jewish member of the city’s House delegation, Nadler decried the court-drawn lines for breaking up his traditional district that united conservative Jewish voters in Brooklyn with much more liberal Jews on the West Side of Manhattan.
Both lawmakers are in their 70s and could have retired or run elsewhere to avoid such a showdown. Ultimately, the clash is more Nadler’s fault. He had the opportunity to easily win the newly drawn 10th district, roping in lower Manhattan and much of Brooklyn’s brownstone belt. A sizable chunk of the 10th lies in Nadler’s old district but would have required him to represent an area outside of his Upper West Side base.
Nadler and Maloney, each with no shortage of ego, both have reasons to be confident. In a compact, liberal Manhattan district, Nadler’s leadership in the efforts to impeach Donald Trump and his inside lane to a New York Times endorsement make him a slight favorite.
But Maloney is more battle-tested. While Nadler was handed his House district when another representative suddenly died, and has rarely had to face down credible primary opponents, Maloney defeated an incumbent Republican and has experience winning primaries, having fended off more liberal challengers in 2018 and 2022. She is a voracious fundraiser and campaigner. The race’s stakes are ultimately more local in scope; Maloney and Nadler have similar voting records and won’t realistically be in Washington another 20 years. Suraj Patel, who made two strong if unsuccessful challenges of Maloney already, is running in the district as well, hoping to carve out a lane among voters hunting for a much younger alternative.
The new 10th district will also have no shortage of star power. Bill de Blasio, the former two-term mayor, has already announced his campaign, hoping to reclaim a national spotlight. Former New York City mayors don’t run for House seats—they typically used Congress as their springboard to City Hall in the first place, like Ed Koch and John Lindsay—and de Blasio will need to win over white liberal voters who had soured on him by his second term. Yet de Blasio must be considered the front-runner—at least for now—with a significant record of accomplishments to run on, like the creation of a universal pre-K program that’s now a national model. The trouble for de Blasio is that he is no longer very popular even in the neighborhoods he once represented in the city council, and he has been blamed for the pandemic-era rise in shootings and murders.
De Blasio’s most formidable opponent may be a 35-year-old who lives nowhere near New York City. Mondaire Jones, a progressive representative first elected in 2018 to represent a district roping in northern Westchester and Rockland Counties, shocked most political observers when he announced last week that he’d run for reelection in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Jones saw the court-appointed special master alter his old district enough to pit him against either Jamaal Bowman, a leftist who belongs to the Squad, or the centrist Sean Patrick Maloney, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Many progressive activists and organizations hoped Jones would challenge Maloney, perhaps replicating AOC’s defeat of establishment darling Joe Crowley, but Maloney was prepared for the fight and well-wired enough to raise many millions of dollars. Not wanting to run against Bowman either, Jones decided to risk his career on the 10th.
Along with Ritchie Torres, Jones was the first openly gay Black man ever elected to Congress, and he’s hoping the district’s storied place in the gay rights movement—Stonewall and Greenwich Village sit in its heart—can propel him to victory. Jones, though, will have to convince a highly educated and somewhat parochial electorate that may look askance at an outsider parachuting into the area. If Jones can attack de Blasio for all of the city’s ills, like its stubbornly high rate of homelessness, the former mayor can chide Jones for having no roots in the city. And the two men won’t be alone: A bevy of other candidates are considering bids or are already running, including two assemblywomen, Yuh-Line Niou and Jo Anne Simon, and the attorney who led the first impeachment inquiry into Trump, Daniel Goldman.
The special master did possibly eliminate one area of competitiveness in New York City. The new 11th district, roping in Staten Island and southern Brooklyn, now very much resembles the old 11th district, after Democratic plans for a more liberal map were scrapped and certain community groups decried preliminary plans that would have kept some of that left-leaning territory in place. The 11th is currently represented by Republican Nicole Malliotakis, who now, once more, has a seat that Trump won by about eight points in 2020. Max Rose, the Democratic representative she unseated that year, is preparing to challenge her again but will have an incredibly difficult time carrying Trump-friendly terrain in a Republican-wave year.
Rose had been hoping for the district to be tugged into northern Brooklyn under the original lines legislative Democrats engineered. Local activists in one of the neighborhoods that could have belonged to the new district, Sunset Park, were furious that they would longer have reliable Democratic representation or be united with Chinatown in Manhattan, since both areas have large Chinese populations.
The special master heeded their concerns and drew Sunset Park into the 10th district, depriving Rose of Democratic votes but guaranteeing that the 2023 representative for the residents there would be a Democrat. In turn, New York City will be sending a Trump Republican to Congress for at least the next two years and perhaps much longer. For the many national Democrats who wanted to flip that seat, the outcome was a genuine gut punch.