Senate Democrats exit session over dispute on redistricting debate

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Democratic legislators walked out of Senate session before midnight Wednesday after a motion was adopted to end the debate on redistricting. Democrats said they had secured a promise from the Senate GOP majority that the debate on each of the redistricting bills could run up to four hours. About half of that had gone by when a GOP motion was approved to curtail the debate.

Senate Majority Leader John Sampson, D-Brooklyn, encouraged his colleagues to leave the chamber en masse. As a result, the Democrats missed the vote on adopting new legislative districts, which is done once every 10 years based on census numbers. The unofficial vote on that bill was 36-0.

Democrats missed the debate and vote on the companion redistricting bill that would amend the state constitution and set up an independent redistricting panel 10 years from now. The legislation would have to be approved by two consecutive legislatures, so the earliest it would be sent to votes is November 2013. The unofficial vote on that bill was also 36-0.

Sampson said members of his conference would not be returning to session. The Senate recessed for a Rules Committee meeting and Senate Republican conference.

“They eliminated our right to debate. We’re going back to pre-civil rights eras, when people were denied the fundamental right to speak their mind, to advocate for the opportunity to vote,” he told reporters outside the Senate chamber. “And this is what’s going in this chamber. They talk about they have changed Albany. They haven’t changed Albany. It’s back to the way Albany used to be — dysfunction.”

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Nassau County, cited from the rules on the floor of the chamber after Democrats left. The rules require all senators to be present during sessions, “unless duly excused or necessarily prevented,” and vote on each question. “If any Senator refuses to vote, unless he or she be excused by the Senate, or unless he or she be interested, such refusal shall be deemed a contempt,” the rules state.

The Democrat-led Assembly voted in favor of the new district lines and constitutional amendment earlier Wednesday night.

The proposed redistricting lines are “gerrymandered” and “partisan,” and they “disenfranchise communities of color,” Sampson said. “This is not democracy, this is a dictatorship by the majority, and we should all be concerned. Every New Yorker needs to be concerned,” he said.

Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, said she was “ashamed” of the Senate.

“I sat there for two hours knowing we had a four-hour scheduled debate. I watched my colleagues, incredibly eloquently, raise issues about racial gerrymandering and violating the rights of people throughout the state of all colors,” she said. “I then watched as a white woman 32 votes to stop us from actually raising these issues on the floor of the Senate. Can you imagine New York, 2012, we’re actually looking like some story of a southern state in the 1950s. It’s very embarrassing, and I think every New Yorker should be horrified.”

This is video of some of Sampson’s comments:

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