Wonky Wednesday:  Onondaga County Legislature Overview


Welcome back to Wonky Wednesday.  Each week I do a deep dive into the election and registration data that makes up the electoral landscape of our home, Onondaga County.  I hope by looking into this data we can glean that this everchanging county is not monolithic as once thought and competition for Democrats, and all registrations, can be found everywhere.  This week I take a bird’s eye view of the Onondaga County Legislature and the race to #Fliptheleg.

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The Onondaga County Legislature is a body of 17 members. These members enact legislation and oversee an annual budget of over 1.2 billion dollars.  County Government has the most extensive reach of any local government.  It oversees the county Health system, criminal justice, elections, and virtually every area of our lives.  The most important race this fall is control of the county legislature.

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Control of the county legislature has come into focus this year because of the redistricting issue.  Every ten years the US Census is taken and redistricting of the legislative lines begins across the county.  As you can see from the comparison of the 2010 map and the current districts, we have lived with the result of a massive partisan gerrymander that cemented a GOP supermajority for nearly all the last decade, despite the enrollment of our county.  The GOP majority on the redistricting commission jammed through this plan without any bipartisan support even flying back a commission member from Ireland just to take the deciding vote.  The weird shapes of these districts led to funny names like the lobster, the vulture, and others by Syracuse.com.  However, those names hid the true purpose of these shapes, to stack and crack democratic strongholds in an attempt to lead to a permanent supermajority.

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We can see here what the 2010 gerrymander has allowed the Onondaga County GOP legislatures to accomplish.  Despite an enrollment advantage in the county, the Democrats have a sizeable minority of member seats in the county legislature.  The GOP has used its redistricting in 2010 combined with incumbency and money advantage to keep a hammer hold on this body.  The 2010 gerrymander was made possible as a law in 2019 to reduce the county legislature from 19 to 17 members allowed a radical redraw and many popular democratic incumbents had announced their intention not to seek another term.  It was a perfect storm that led to the current situation.

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The 2010 gerrymander was nothing other than a power grab by the gop power structure.  They used a combination of incumbency and dilution of democratic areas to solidify a majority.  They used their control of the redistricting commission to draw GOP majority districts in OCL 1, 3, 6, 10, 11, 12,13 assuring that in 2010 no Democrat could win in those districts.  Then they drew even districts in OCL 2,4,5, & 14 and used incumbents in those districts to retain control.  They then stacked as many Democratic votes into 8,9,16, &17 as possible to give Democrats those seats but diluting the City of Syracuse and Dewitt, Democratic enrollment strongholds.  This assured them a majority.

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On top of that two supposed democratic districts were drawn in such a way to include popular GOP challengers.  Ryan McMahon, the current county executive, was on the redistricting commission and drew a district that just happened to include his home and power base in the valley of Syracuse where he was sitting as 3rd ward councilor in Syracuse.  After the commission he ran for OCL 15th, won, and as a freshman was voted chairman of the County Legislature.  A similar decision was made in OCL 7 which happened to include the village of East Syracuse where popular mayor Dan Liedka had announced his intention to seek a county legislative seat.  By drawing these districts in this way, it gave the GOP a legislative super majority of 13-4.

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However, things are starting to slip.  The enrollment of this county, specially in the populous suburbs, is starting to overwhelm the 2010 gerrymander.  Democrats have won seats in each of the last two elections. They started as a 4-member super minority and as the county changed, they were able to win the 7th County Legislative seat when Liedka decided not to seek re-election in 2017 and 15th county legislative seat in when Ryan McMahon ascended to the County Executive.

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Furthermore, demographic changes in OCL 2, 10 & 11 have made those super competitive seats.  There are now open seats in OCL 4 & 14 this year where incumbency will not help as much.  Even in seats with still strong GOP majorities like 1,2, & 12 the momentum of the registration is on our side.  In fact, in every OCL seat since their drawing in 2011 Democrats have gained in partisan advantage, even when factoring in the conservative party members naturally aligning with the GOP.  

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Earlier last year, despite their pledges in 2019, the County GOP rejected an independent redistricting commission breaking their promises they made in the 2019 campaigns.  However, that does not mean the issue is lost.  Because of the late transmission of census data and the political calendar, no redistricting work can start or be finished before the new legislature takes seat.  That means if the Democrats gain majority, they can block any map that does not have bi-partisan consensus both on the redistricting commission and in the body itself.

Starting next week, we start looking at the individual 17 county legislative districts and the race to #Fliptheleg in Onondaga County.  The history of their formation and electoral outcomes will be dived into as well as the state of their current enrollments. Democrats are competing in every seat, and you will learn a little about the nature of each race this year.

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