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Albany County Legislator Wanda Willingham On Redistricting

County Legislator Wanda Willingham at the podium outside the DMV on South Pearl Street, Albany  (October 2018).
WAMC photo by Dave Lucas
Albany County Legislator Wanda Willingham at the podium outside the DMV on South Pearl Street, Albany (October 2018).

2020 will bring with it a new U.S. Census — and the redrawing of legislative districts. Albany Democrat Wanda Willingham is deputy chair of the County Legislative Black Caucus and represents District 3 on the county legislature. She spoke with WAMC's Capital Region Bureau Chief Dave Lucas about the challenge of redistricting the city.

Legislators in Albany County have been striving to come up with a bipartisan proposal for an independent redistricting commission. It's not easy; three consecutive redistricting plans had to be redrawn after legal challenges contended the new maps minimized minority voting power by failing to recognize increases in minority populations. Willingham has high hopes for revision this time around:   "Right now I do believe that we are headed in the right direction. It's not just transparency that we're going after. What we're really trying to do is make a bold step into the future, whereby the census is not only taken seriously, but the people who are part of the process, are educated and understand what they're doing when they begin to cut up the districts that will represent people for a decade. The other thing that I see too is now we talk about the Department of Justice and their definition of what is black and what is Hispanic. You have Hispanic white. You have Hispanic black. You have black. You have black and another race and so forth and so on. My doctor is not from the United States. She asked me a question one time, 'What is going to happen to the brown people?' That led me to think about the browning of America. And I believe that probably by the next census we take after 2020 it's gonna be a different definition of how we define what the races are."

The U.S. Census provides indicators for reapportionment.

Willingham said  "The redistricting right now is supposed to handle the way in which we cut up the districts to ensure that people are represented properly and by the people. Someone who looks like them, who lives in their community and who understands how they live."

Should the legislature approve Local Law 'O' to revise the county charter, it would be up for a public vote in November.  "This time around, what we're trying to do is ensure, hopefully, that Albany County does not go through a fourth lawsuit. And the subcommittee, which is supposed to handle the majority/minority districts to ensure that we're looking at how we've increased in number, where we are in Albany County, because we know we're expanding out of the wards in the city of Albany that people have normally applied to minorities to ensure that we do have the proper number of representatives that sit either in the city, that sit on the county level, and of course we know it starts up with the state level and so forth."

Willingham, now serving her fourth term, says the burden is on the legislature to draw districts that will remain fair and equitable for years to come.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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