When Is An Incumbent Not An Incumbent?

© Drew Roberts

Redistricting has finally happened in New York. Senate and Assembly districts have been carved, predictably, by the two parties in order to maintain their respective control of the two chambers in Albany. Congressional districts, on the other hand, were drawn by a federal judge, who grew impatient with legislators’ inability to cooperate when partisan advantage was not so easy to gain.

And now we are in the interregnum, when incumbents presume to represent their old districts while presenting themselves to their new constituents for inevitable re-election.

In a fair world, no one would be able to run for “re-election” after redistricting, since that word carries a significant psychological weight. Someone sending me campaign mail that says “Re-elect Representative A,” encourages me to think I’ve voted for Rep A before — even though I haven’t.

Take one example in the neighborhood I pay attention to. Eliot Engel, who currently represents Mount Vernon, small parts of the Bronx and Yonkers, and a big chunk of Rockland County across the Hudson, will now be running in a district that encompasses a large part of southern Westchester and nothing in Rockland. If Engel lived in Spring Valley, this new district NY-16 would be an open seat, and Engel would have to run in a primary against fellow-incumbent Nita Lowey. But since he lives in Riverdale, he instead gets to run for “re-election.”

In a letter last week Engel danced around the point:

“I am very enthused about the honor of representing the new 16th District of New York. I have always had the honor and privilege of representing people from the Bronx and Westchester communities while in Congress. Now, due to Federal court redistricting of Congressional Districts, many Westchester residents will be new to the Congressional District that I have represented.”

Not his fault, of course, this is just the odd way we talk about redistricting. But it’s a bit absurd. I mean, if Dennis Kucinich moves from Ohio to run for Congress in Washington State, does he print up bumperstickers that say “Re-elect Kucinich”?

For New Yorkers, there’s this great map that really illustrates how districts are shifting for the next election. You can search for your address and see the lines wiggle around your block. The only data that’s missing is, where do today’s incumbent’s reside? Without that information, you have no idea who your brand new incumbent will be.