Are You Grilling Or Are You Barbecuing?

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Ages ago an errant stroke of lightning struck a dry woodland. The ensuing fire consumed not only the trees, but several animals too slow to escape. A curious caveman meandered into the still smoldering forest. He stopped. What was that he smelled? It smelled… “delicious” would have been the word he would have used if he could speak English.

He looked all around for the source of that compelling aroma. Amidst the pockets of remaining flames, he found it. It looked ugly, a blackened char. Yet, it was unmistakable. The sumptuous scent came from what looked like what used to be an animal.

Salivating, he grabbed it and took a big deep bite.

Then promptly spit it out. “Yeech!” How could something that smelled so good taste so bad.

But the bite revealed the hidden treasure. Beneath the charred surface the caveman saw Continue Reading “Are You Grilling Or Are You Barbecuing?”

New York State Has A Serious Gerrymandering Problem – Here’s What To Do About It, But First…

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Original 1812 drawing of the Gerrymander by Elkanah Tisdale.

Marshall Pinckney Wilder was a popular humorist who travelled the world. A favorite of the British royal family, he wrote books, appeared in movies, and always signed his correspondence “Merrily yours.” He was born in Geneva in 1859 and grew up in Rochester, where he developed his talent as a storyteller (and also dabbled in clairvoyance, which was popular in Western New York during that era).

He was named after his great-uncle, a famed phytologist in Boston.

Well, not quite.

When the Bostonian botanist came into this world in 1798, his father gave him the name “Marshall Pinckney Gerry Wilder,” in honor of John Marshall, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Elbridge Gerry, the envoys to France appointed by President John Adams in 1797.

By the time he became a teenager, the name was shorted to “Marshall Pinckney Wilder.”

What happened to “Gerry”? Therein lies a tale of political intrigue and comeuppance that continues to this day.

More than a mere envoy, Elbridge Gerry stood out as a true Founding Father who eventually became the fifth Vice President of the United States. He signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. He would have signed the United States Constitution, but he was one of three delegates who refused to do so on account it lacked a Bill of Rights.

So, what did he do? He became a congressman and, as such, spearheaded the effort to adopt the Bill of Rights (as the first ten amendments to the Constitution). Like George Washington, he opposed the idea of political parties.

Until France, that is.

You see, the three envoys were dispatched to iron out the Franco-American diplomatic breakdown that would come to be known as “the XYZ Affair.” Long story short, Gerry and his fellow Americans refused to bribe the French foreign minister Talleyrand. This was considered common practice in Europe, but, well, America was not Europe (especially at that time).

While Pinckney’s dad (and others) admired the envoys’ stand, the Federalists (who held the House, the Senate, and the Presidency) did not. They blamed the envoys for the failure to negotiate.

Up until then, Gerry had been staunchly non-partisan. After the Federalists vilification of him, he joined the Democratic-Republican party (the predecessor of our current Democrat party). He ran unsuccessfully for Governor of Massachusetts under that banner before finally being elected to the position in 1810.  He was reelected the following year after promoting a moderate if not bi-partisan course.

It was, however, in that second term where Gerry earned his infamous stripes. With the Democratic-Republican party in full control, Gerry showed his true partisan colors. He removed Federalist appointees from their State positions. But the worst was yet to come.

Although Massachusetts was evenly divided, the Democratic-Republicans used their power to apportion electoral district boundaries to make it more difficult for Federalists to regain the majority. The new districts they created were so contorted, Elkanah Tisdale, a well-known engraver, most likely was the person responsible for making a political cartoon lampooning the strange-shaped district. This first appeared in the March 26, 1812 Edition of the Boston Gazette.

We’ll let John Ward Dean tell the rest of the story (as he related it in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Volume 46, published in 1892):

“Washington Allston, calling there with James Ogilvie, a lecturer on oratory, and noticing the figure, remarked to [Benjamin] Russell, the editor, ‘What an odd-looking creature is this! it looks like a Salamander.’ On which Ogilvie, quick as light, replies, ‘Why, let it be named Gerrymander, for the governor.’”

The Democratic-Republican plan, signed into law by Gerry, worked, but not for Gerry. He lost the next election. Though the Federalists had the most votes statewide, the Democratic-Republicans ended up with a three to one edge in the State Senate.

The vilified public pronounced their judgment by forcing Gerry out. He was assailed in the popular press. The May 23, 1812 Colombian Centinel (yes, they spelled it that way), quoting a Judge Story, wrote, “It would be well, however, if we could so ascertain beyond a doubt the real Father of this unnatural monster, that we might hold him up to everlasting scorn and contempt.”

Marshall Pinckney Gerry Wilder’s father took the measure one step further. According to Dean, who was quoting Wilder himself on this, “after the gerrymandering doings he lost his admiration and had the ‘Gerry’ struck out of his son’s name.”

By now, you’ve all read of our current state of Gerrymandering right here in New York State. It’s more than the usual tilting, it’s as egregious as Gerry’s was in 1812. We all know the motivations, but here’s how it hurts Monroe County especially.

Traditionally, Monroe County has had two Congressional districts. In recent years, this has meant we’ve been represented by both parties. That’s good because you never know which party will retain control of the House. By have two seats, one from each party, we’re guaranteed to have access to the majority.

If you listen to the experts, the Republicans are expected to gain control of the House following the mid-term elections. (This is a reasonable guess, given the number of Democrats who have decided not to seek reelection, the population shifting to “Red” states, and the usual party loss based on the White House incumbent.) As of now, Monroe County has only one seat (by comparison, Erie County has three) and it’s designed to be won by a Democrat.

Not good for Monroe County should the Republicans retake the house.

What’s the solution? There’s not a clear one. Basically, the majority rules, and the Democrats have a clear majority in the New York State legislature. They made a mockery of the independent bipartisan committee that was supposed to be responsible for redistricting, so you can see that’s not a viable option.

The fairest way to prevent gerrymandering is geometry-based rules. For example, every district must touch at least three other districts (two if the district is on a border) and at least two of those districts must not touch each other. In other words, each district must be a parallelogram (e.g., a square or a rectangular).

We don’t need a special commission, but we do need to prevent the redistricting abuse we’re seeing in our state.

Perhaps you should clip this column out and send it to an appropriate judge since there are now at least two cases challenging the New York State Gerrymander.