For most voters, this year’s biennial State Assembly primary is of little significance, as a majority of candidates vying for party nominations are doing so unopposed. However, for residents of the 46th Assembly District in southwest Brooklyn, the primary on Sept. 13 is an electoral manifestation of an oft-discussed but rarely addressed systemic flaw.
The State Assembly’s 46th District involves two main neighborhoods—Bay Ridge and Coney Island —but the way it’s drawn makes it much more logistically complicated than that. It’s a gerrymanderer’s masterpiece, looking, to one local political writer, more like a snarling, long-necked dragon than an electoral map.
The odd shape of the 46th District is a result of Democratic gerrymandering dating back to 1982. Although both New York State Senate and Assembly districts are reevaluated every 10 years when new census data is released, the shape of the 46th, with its nearly separate Bay Ridge and Coney Island sections has remained mostly constant since that time.
This naturally raises questions in terms of the quality of representation each neighborhood receives from their mutual Assemblyperson, as he or she must balance the interests of two isolated neighborhoods. Bay Ridge consistently gets the short end of this stick, considering that, since 1982 redistricting, the Assemblyperson from the 46th District has never been a Bay Ridge resident. In fact, Bay Ridge rarely gets any direct representation in the lower house of the state legislature, since the northern half of the neighborhood shares the 64th District (formerly the 60th District) with a large swath of Staten Island.
Although some of Bay Ridge’s more politically-minded residents have complained about a lack of direct representation in the past, the mood has generally been content on both sides of the district in terms of satisfaction with Assemblymen and women. This primary season, however, election results may turn out to be more geographically divided than they have in recent history.
That’s because, in the Democratic primary for the 46th District Assembly seat, incumbent Pamela Harris, a lifelong Coney Islander, is being challenged by Kate Cucco, a resident of Bay Ridge.
Harris won the District seat in a special Nov. 2015 election after former long-time Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny (D) retired to take a job in the private sector. It was Harris’s first time running for public office. She formerly worked as a corrections officer on Riker’s Island until she retired in 2006 to become the executive director of the Coney Island Generation Gap, a teen media arts nonprofit program.
Cucco was the chief of staff to Brook-Krasny for a majority of his nine-year tenure, moving to Brooklyn to take the job shortly after graduating from the Ohio State University.
Each candidate has ties to the neighborhood of which she is not a resident, and therefore each has a claim as to why she would be the better representative for the district as a whole.
Harris, although a lifelong resident of Coney Island, tells The Brooklyn Ink that she spent much of her childhood at her father’s house in Bay Ridge, and thus, effectively “grew up in both” neighborhoods.
Cucco, though a Bay Ridge resident for close to a decade, points to her years of public service heading Brook-Krasny’s office as indication that she is fully in touch with the entirety of the district. In fact, when the Brooklyn Ink met up with Cucco, she was mentioning to friends and family that she had just given her first campaign pitch in broken Russian to a member of Coney Island’s famous Russian community.
Both candidates also say that Bay Ridge and Coney Island, though they are home to somewhat different ethnic populations, share a lot of the same needs. “People want to feel safe,” Cucco said. “They want good schools for their kids. There might be some [differences], but this transcends neighborhood.”
Harris says that it was only after she put an office in Bay Ridge—in addition to her office in Coney Island and her office in Albany—that she understood that the needs of both of her main constituent neighborhoods were essentially parallel.
“I believe that made a big difference,” she said. “In the six short months I’ve been in office, I’ve been able to make the difference by giving funding. You have to give parity funding.” She then went on the explain how she heard that the police precincts encompassing Bay Ridge and Coney Island needed more patrol vehicles, and how a school in each neighborhood needed more funding for audio equipment, so she allocated equal funds to each neighborhood so they could each fix their mutual problems.
However, both Harris and Cucco express regret at the peculiar way State Assembly Districts are drawn.
“You don’t want the gerrymandering. You don’t want the district to look like a salamander,” says Harris “You want it to look like it’s a representation of who the district is.”
Cucco believes that there should be a redistricting process “done by an independent commission.” She points to the power that the legislature has in drawing district lines as evidence of poor constituent service. “If I’m an elected official, I could take a crayon and draw a line around where I have friends.”
Is Harris also in favor of a new redistricting process? “I’m in favor of the constituents having a say on how far they should go,” she said.
A constitutional amendment was passed in 2014 that gave the minority party in the legislature more say in the 2022 redrawing of district lines, but the “redistricting commission” to be created upon the amendment’s implementation will neither involve input from the public, nor will it be independent of the legislature’s influence, and therefore it satisfies neither Cucco’s nor Harris’s requirements.
For the time being, the public servants and constituents of the 46th are just going to have to continue to balance the needs of their two-neighborhood Assembly district.