MANHATTAN — Senate Democrats staged a walkout late Wednesday in advance of a vote that approved a controversial plan to redraw the borders of the state's Assembly and Senate districts.
The protest and redistricting vote came during a high-drama session in which legislators also approved limits on retirement benefits for new state workers, expanded the DNA database and finalized language for a constitutional amendment that could legalize gambling in New York.
Many Democrats and good-government groups have slammed the new district lines as partisan gerrymandering that cuts up towns, cities and minority populations to guarantee incumbent wins.
"So much for change coming to Albany," blasted Queens Sen. Michael Gianaris, a vocal critic of the redrawn legislative map, which was drafted by LATFOR, a legislative task force that essentially allowed Democrats to draw the Assembly boundaries and Republicans to craft the new Senate lines.
Gianaris, a Democrat, said he's especially frustrated by what some believe was a concerted effort to split minority populations into separate districts and dilute their power.
"[This is] a blatantly illegal plan that disenfranchises millions of New Yorkers," he said during the floor debate. He also told his colleagues in the GOP-controlled Senate to take their plan and "shove it."
Bronx Sen. Gustavo Rivera said he was especially concerned by a failure to recognize the growing Latino populations in neighborhoods like Washington Heights.
"It takes power away from people who need it the most," he said of the once-a-decade process of redrawing district maps to reflect new Census data
Sen. Michael Nozzolio, a Republican from upstate Seneca County who was a co-chairman of LATFOR, the Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment, repeatedly tried to assure lawmakers that the lines were well within permissible guidelines and perfectly legitimate.
But tempers reached a boiling point when leaders in the Senate, where Republicans hold a slim majority, refused to extend debate on the bill beyond the usual two hours, overruling the Democrats' request.
"It comes to a point in time where enough is enough," said Senate Democratic Conference Leader John Sampson, a Brooklyn Democrat who slammed the proceedings as "a charade of democracy" and called for his colleagues to walk out.
Democrats proceeded to file out of the chamber, resulting in a 36-to-0 final vote in support of the redrawn lines. The bill also passed the Democrat-led Assembly, 96-to-40.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo had threatened a veto of the new district map. But the Associated Press, citing a senior administration official, said he was expected to sign the bill Thursday in advance of a federal court hearing.
Cuomo's decision reportedly came after legislators agreed to a constitutional amendment intended to create a non-partisan redistricting process a decade from now.
"This agreement will permanently reform the redistricting process in New York to once and for all end self-interested and partisan gerrymandering," Cuomo said in a statement
"With the Legislature agreeing to pass this historic constitutional amendment twice by a specified date, and passing a tough statute that mirrors the amendment, we have taken a major step toward finally reforming the state's broken redistricting process."
Critics, however, said reforms didn't go far enough.
"Make no mistake, for New Yorkers these redistricting bills are more of the same old Albany. They mean politicians choosing their constituents, so that constituents have less ability to choose their representatives — not just for 10 years but permanently,” State Sen. Daniel Squadron said.