Fearing ‘Extinction-Level Event,’ N.Y. Democrats Turn Against Each Other

Two weeks ago, Representative Sean Patrick Maloney warned fellow Democrats in a private meeting that a ruling by New York’s highest court to invalidate a Democratic-leaning congressional map could prompt “an extinction-level event” for the party, according to people familiar with the remarks.

Democratic incumbents, he feared, could either be shoehorned into more difficult districts or forced into primaries against one another.

So on Monday, when the courts finally unveiled a proposed new slate of districts unwinding Democrats’ gerrymander, Mr. Maloney, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, knew precisely what to do.

Just 25 minutes after the maps’ release, Mr. Maloney announced on Twitter that he would leave behind the bulk of his traditional Hudson Valley seat and run instead for a newly drawn 17th Congressional District rooted in Westchester County. Mr. Maloney lives within the new lines, which happen to offer a safer path for a Democrat than the district he currently represents.

What might have seemed like an easy political decision for Mr. Maloney, however, has quickly turned into a political firestorm, replete with racial overtones, off-the-record recriminations and rare breaches of congressional decorum between staff of neighboring colleagues.

Some Democrats saw the maneuver as an attempt to box out Representative Mondaire Jones, a first-term congressman who represents the vast majority of the district’s population, and force him to enter a primary against Jamaal Bowman, a fellow Black progressive, in the neighboring 16th District. Mr. Jones made no secret of his own feelings, though he has yet to say which Democrat he will challenge.

“Sean Patrick Maloney did not even give me a heads-up before he went on Twitter to make that announcement,” Mr. Jones tersely told Politico on Monday. “And I think that tells you everything you need to know about Sean Patrick Maloney.”

What to Know About Redistricting

  • Redistricting, Explained: Here are some answers to your most pressing questions about the process that is reshaping American politics.
  • Understand Gerrymandering: Can you gerrymander your party to power? Try to draw your own districts in this imaginary state.
  • Killing Competition: The number of competitive districts is dropping, as both parties use redistricting to draw themselves into safe seats.
  • Deepening Divides: As political mapmakers create lopsided new district lines, the already polarized parties are being pulled even farther apart.

In a rare break from Congress’s genteel protocols, Mr. Jones’s chief of staff even shared a screenshot of an exchange with Mr. Maloney’s top aide, and accused the chairman of prioritizing his personal interests “rather than working to unravel this gerrymander” by the courts.

The once-a-decade congressional redistricting process is almost always an exercise in raw political power, particularly in a state like New York, which this year must shed a seat overall to account for population losses.

But if New York’s redistricting cycle began this year with an attempt by Democrats to marginalize Republicans, it now appears destined to end in intense infighting among Democrats as the Aug. 23 primary approaches — thanks to a ruling last month by the state’s highest court declaring the Democrat-led Legislature’s maps unconstitutional.

“Can I just go on vacation through August and wake up in September?” said Maria Slippen, the chairwoman of the Cortlandt Democratic Committee in Westchester County, lamenting a potential Democrat on Democrat fight in her district between Mr. Maloney and Mr. Jones. “When we are put in a situation where we have to fight with each other, the Republicans win,” she added.

Representative Mondaire Jones said Mr. Maloney failed to give him a heads-up on his election plan.Credit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

The replacement map, drawn for the court by Jonathan R. Cervas, erased outright gains that Democrats had counted on based on the Legislature’s map and made other Democratic swing seats more competitive. It also forced at least five pairsof incumbents together in the same districts from Brooklyn to Buffalo, leaving candidates to decide whether to retire, move or go head-to-head with another sitting House member.

A few miles down the Hudson from Mr. Maloney, two powerful Democratic committee chairs who have served alongside each other for 30 years — Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney — were also gearing up for a potentially explosive primary fight that would pit the east and west sides of Manhattan against one another in the new 12th Congressional District.

Representatives Hakeem Jeffries and Yvette Clarke, two Black Democrats drawn into a single district in Central Brooklyn, expressed fury at Mr. Cervas, but indicated they were likely to still run for separate seats.

The maps, which could still be tweaked before a judge makes them final on Friday, may simply leave other candidates without a natural seat to run in and create unexpected openings for candidates who had previously decided not to run in 2022.

Alessandra Biaggi, a rising Democratic star in the State Senate, had hoped to run in a new seat — stretching from her home in Westchester County to Nassau County on Long Island — created under the State Legislature’s plan. But Mr. Cervas’s map removed Westchester from the district entirely.

Rana Abdelhamid, a community organizer backed by Justice Democrats, had spent more than a year campaigning against Ms. Maloney in New York City, only to see her Queens neighborhood removed from the district.

Suraj Patel, another Carolyn Maloney challenger, has yet to declare his intentions but lives close to the line separating the new 12th District from the 10th, the remnants of Mr. Nadler’s old seat. He could decide to run in the 10th, where State Senator Brad Hoylman, former Mayor Bill de Blasio and Carlina Rivera, a member of the City Council, are also seriously considering runs.

How U.S. Redistricting Works

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What is redistricting? It’s the redrawing of the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts. It happens every 10 years, after the census, to reflect changes in population.

Why is it important this year? With an extremely slim Democratic margin in the House of Representatives, simply redrawing maps in a few key states could determine control of Congress in 2022.

How does it work? The census dictates how many seats in Congress each state will get. Mapmakers then work to ensure that a state’s districts all have roughly the same number of residents, to ensure equal representation in the House.

Who draws the new maps? Each state has its own process. Eleven states leave the mapmaking to an outside panel. But most — 39 states — have state lawmakers draw the new maps for Congress.

If state legislators can draw their own districts, won’t they be biased? Yes. Partisan mapmakers often move district lines — subtly or egregiously — to cluster voters in a way that advances a political goal. This is called gerrymandering.

What is gerrymandering? It refers to the intentional distortion of district maps to give one party an advantage. While all districts must have roughly the same population, mapmakers can make subjective decisions to create a partisan tilt.

Is gerrymandering legal? Yes and no. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal courts have no role to play in blocking partisan gerrymanders. However, the court left intact parts of the Voting Rights Act that prohibit racial or ethnic gerrymandering.

Want to know more about redistricting and gerrymandering? Times reporters answer your most pressing questions here.

Republicans also faced some hard choices, though with fewer incumbents and the possibility of expanding the size of their delegation on Mr. Cervas’s maps, they appeared to have more room to maneuver.

National Republican leaders in Washington quickly added two Hudson Valley candidates, Marc Molinaro and Assemblyman Colin Schmitt, to their “young guns” program — a designation identifying the candidates for the Hudson Valley seats, currently held by Democrats, including Mr. Maloney, as prime targets to flip this fall.

On Long Island, Representative Andrew Garbarino may have two plausible districts to campaign in: He could move to a safe open Republican seat based in Suffolk County, or run in a reconfigured version of his current district to the west, which voted narrowly for President Biden in 2020.

The path forward was less clear for Representatives Claudia Tenney in central New York and Chris Jacobs in western New York. Both Republicans could be interested in running for a new seat running from the outskirts of Buffalo through the Finger Lakes to the eastern shore of Lake Ontario but could pursue adjacent seats instead.

On the Democratic side, progressive groups are openly pushing Mr. Maloney to relent and run for the more competitive 18th District. If he refuses, they would prefer that Mr. Jones take on Mr. Maloney, a moderate, rather than an ideological ally like Mr. Bowman.

“For the head of the D.C.C.C., whose role is to lead electoral strategy that creates an equitable and representative Democratic Party, to position himself at the expense of his colleagues — in particular two Black men — seems deeply cynical, unstrategic and self-serving,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, the director of the Working Families Party.

Mr. Jones declined an interview request on Tuesday.

Mr. Maloney, in contrast, is wasting little time trying to get a leg up in the race. He and his political aides almost immediately began making calls to Democratic leaders in the new district, pressing for support and pointing out that Mr. Jones would no longer live in the district. Campaign allies were privately arguing to fellow Democrats that Mr. Jones was too liberal to hold the new seat in an election year that is expected to favor Republicans.

Asked about the situation in Washington on Tuesday, Mr. Maloney played down the conflict and suggested there was no real primary at this point.

“From my point of view, I’m just running from where I landed,” he said. “If someone else is looking at the district, as well, obviously we will try to work through that as colleagues and friends.”

Mr. Bowman has not commented on the possibility of running against Mr. Jones. But he posted a lengthy thread on Twitter on Tuesday raising concerns that Mr. Cervas’s map would dilute the electoral power of low-income Black communities in his current district by splitting them among three new seats.

Mr. Jeffries, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, raised similar objections about the voices of Black and Latino communities in Brooklyn and Queens being “degraded” in four different districts.

“Are you kidding me?” he said. “That doesn’t happen by accident.”

Some Democrats and public interest groups, including the Brooklyn N.A.A.C.P., were weighing whether to try to legally challenge the lines. But legal experts cautioned the suits would have a hard time succeeding so late in an election year.

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