The 29th Congressional District is like Fleetwood Mac: Operating for a long time under one name, but with a variety of incarnations.
I was taken aback while recently reading Gore Vidal’s memoir “Point to Point Navigation” to note that his unsuccessful bid for a New York congressional seat in 1960 was for the 29th District. This surprised me because I knew A) he ran for a seat in eastern New York’s Hudson Valley and B) the present-day 29th District encompasses western New York’s Southern Tier. That’s quite a shift.
For all of the hue and cry about “identity” and “tradition” any time anyone suggests consolidating a pair of rural towns or school districts, nary a tear is shed when political districts are re-imagined, reconfigured and all but regurgitated onto a map (as the shape of many of them suggests).
The 29th Congressional District is as good an example of this as any.
Back in 1960, when our man Gore — in the midst of an eight-year break from novels, but with a hit play on Broadway (“The Best Man”) — ran for the 29th, it consisted of the counties of Columbia, Dutchess, Greene, Scoharie and Ulster. But in the years since, New York’s population has been dropping relative to the rest of the nation’s and, with it, its congressional representation — from a high of 45 seats in the 1940s to just 29 today. Thus, revisions.
The 29th crawled slightly north and west following the 1960 and ’70 censuses. It then picked up stakes entirely after the 1980 Census, as state electoral map makers (i.e., partisan cartographers looking to protect the interests of the 39 Congress members who now had to squeeze into 34 seats) moved it well west: to cover Cayuga, Oswego, Seneca and Wayne counties, and parts of Monroe and Oneida. The 1990s version: All of Niagara and Orleans, parts of Monroe and Erie. And today, five Southern Tier counties, most of Ontario County and good portion of southern Monroe.
So the 29th Congressional District is like Fleetwood Mac: Operating for a long time under one name, but with a variety of incarnations. In fact, since Mr. Vidal appeared on the ballot, the 29th District has, at one time or another, been home to all or part of 28 different counties. Subtract the two counties on Long Island and the five that make up New York City and that’s more than half the counties in the state!
This helps to explain why, when former Rep. Eric Massa bragged in 2008 of being the first Democrat in memory to win the seat, he wasn’t, technically, accurate. Geographically, that may have been true — it had been generations since a Democrat had represented, say, Yates and Steuben counties. But electorally, Democrat John LaFalce represented the 29th as recently as 2002. He just did it out near Buffalo.
All of this political arcana is germane these days because New York will again be shedding a congressional district or two in the wake of the 2010 census. And that means the 29th District’s next move is into the history books. Its constituents will still be represented, but as part of a 28th, 27th or some other numbered district.
There will be no mourning the loss of a tradition. No historical markers or monuments erected; no weighty words orated under black bunting. Not even the transferring of a deed. There will be only political expediency and the redrawing of lines on a map.
And perhaps somewhere out in Los Angeles, 85-year-old Gore Vidal — historical novelist and political observer that he is — will nod knowingly at the thought that yet another small sample of Americana, a palpable albeit mobile piece of political real estate, has passed into the chapters of a nation’s history. He may, but it’s likely few others will.
Contact Kevin Frisch at (585) 394-0770, ext. 257, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.