SMITHTOWN, N.Y.—For decades, Long Island's minority population has grown steadily, transforming the nation's first suburbs from white, Republican bastions into an area that is nearly 30% black, Latino and Asian.
On Thursday, anger over the failure of those numbers to translate into political power erupted at a public hearing here in Suffolk County on new boundaries drafted for the island's nine state Senate seats.
Black and Latino leaders—who had been organizing and honing their arguments this week [with support from the Long Island Civic Engagement Table]—contended the boundaries split minority communities and diluted their voting power.
No black, Asian or Latino person has ever held a state Senate or congressional seat on Long Island. There is one black and one Latino member of the Assembly from the region.
"We're not just talking about electing a black person or a Hispanic person," said Frederick K. Brewington, a Hempstead civil rights attorney who challenged statewide redistricting a decade ago. "We're talking about electing candidates that the persons in those communities would support. It could be a white person, a Hispanic person, a Chinese person."
The new maps were issued last month by the New York State Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment, which is charged with overhauling Assembly, Senate and congressional lines every 10 years based on new Census data. The task force created Nassau and Suffolk maps largely unchanged from years past.
Hearings are being held statewide before the new lines are voted on by the Legislature. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has vowed to veto maps drawn for partisan purposes.
Scott Reif, a spokesman for the Senate's Republican majority, which has control over the Senate maps, said: "Our plan is fair and legal, and protects minority voting interests. We consolidate communities of interest wherever possible, and largely preserve the cores of existing districts. These are draft lines, and we expect to make changes."
Redistricting is a particularly sensitive issue in the state Senate, where Republicans hold a 32-30 majority. A Long Island Senate district with a large minority population could lean Democratic, jeopardizing control of the chamber. Long Island's two main minority areas—Hempstead and Brentwood—are split among six Republican senators, who—like all of Long Island's nine senators—are white men.
Long Island's voter registration has changed from solidly Republican to slightly Democratic over the last decade. Immigrants have also changed the region's demographics. In 1990, Suffolk and Nassau counties combined were 6.3% Latino, 6.9% black and 2.3% Asian, according to census data. In 2010, the region was 15.6% Latino, 8.6% black and 5.4% Asian.
On Wednesday, Elizabeth Bonilla, 40 [and a member of New York Communities for Change], said Brentwood, where she grew up, and neighboring Central Islip, where she lives, face a distinct set of problems—high foreclosure rates, gangs, drugs, under-performing schools and high property taxes.
"To have someone representing us who has been there, you know, been there done that," she said, "it would be ideal for us because they know how hard it is."
But Sean Wright, a 42-year-old African-American from Valley Stream, said minorities don't vote as a bloc and said he liked his senator. "I'm happy with [Senate Majority Leader] Dean Skelos," Mr. Wright said.
Stan Klein, political science professor at the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University and a member of the Huntington Republican Committee, said drawing majority-minority districts on Long Island would be difficult because they are spread out. Further, he said, it would be "equally unfair" to draw districts specifically for minority communities.
Larry Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said both parties draw political lines that protect incumbents, and Republicans were trying to hang on to their majority as long as possible. "But eventually," Mr. Levy said, "whether it's 10 years, certainly no more than 20 years, there will not be nine Republican, white districts on Long Island."