NEW YORK — In a deep-blue stronghold of 8.8 million people, where Democratic voters dominate Republicans 7 to 1, a conservative city lawmaker from the remotest reach of the self-proclaimed “forgotten borough” has emerged a power broker.
Staten Island Council Member Joe Borelli, leader of the 51-member body’s five-person Republican caucus, is playing an outsize role reforging the Council district lines that lawmakers must defend next year in an off-cycle election triggered by once-in-a-decade redistricting.
Borelli, who made a local name for himself defending Donald Trump on cable news, appeared to ally himself with one of the city’s top Democrats (Mayor Eric Adams) and outmaneuver another (Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, no relation to the mayor) in service of a redistricting coup that’s shaping battle lines for years to come.
He was granted just three appointees to a 15-member commission that is overseeing the map-drawing process. The mayor, meanwhile, placed seven members and the speaker got five. Yet in selecting the prevailing map this month, the commission opted against another proposal that would have required Staten Island to absorb neighborhoods in Brooklyn, according to a copy of the discarded map reviewed by POLITICO.
The result gave Borelli what he’d been hard at work angling for: Staten Island’s borders stayed intact and its three Council seats remained virtually unchanged, even as districts were upended elsewhere.
The ripple effects were immediate and expansive.
Staten Island’s population grew over the last 10 years, but at a slower rate than other parts of the city. To meet requirements that each district contain roughly the same number of people, the commission shifts lines to grow or shrink its size. Keeping Staten Island whole left less wiggle room to design the remainder of the jigsaw puzzle while still complying with a host of city, state and federal criteria.
In Manhattan, for example, population growth required several districts to shed voters — shrinking their boundaries. Having more leeway there would have reduced the need to carve up neighborhoods like Hell’s Kitchen.
“The border between Staten Island and Brooklyn is nearly a mile and $20,” Borelli said in an interview from a family vacation in Greece Monday, referring to the oft-lamented toll on the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge that links the boroughs. “We have nothing in common with any other part of the city, and given our small population, we already have a hard enough time getting attention from City Hall.”
Staten Island — home for decades to a massive garbage dump that has since shuttered — long ago dubbed their suburban enclave the “forgotten borough.” And their elected officials have a rich tradition of rejecting integration, arguing their perceived poor treatment all but mandates they maintain their unique identity. In fact, Borelli recently moved to revive an old proposal that the borough secede from the rest of the city.
When it comes to keeping island-specific Council districts, Democrats and Republicans alike who represent the self-contained, conservative bastion agree, Borelli said. He plans to defend the redistricting proposal even as many of his Council colleagues mount challenges against their new lines before the commission finalizes the maps by February.
“I will use whatever influence I have to make sure Staten Island doesn’t lose an ounce of power at City Hall,” Borelli said.
When the redistricting process got underway earlier this year, Borelli said he immediately made clear his desire to avoid any expansion into Brooklyn. Along with his two Staten Island Council counterparts, including Democratic Council Member Kamillah Hanks, he encouraged residents to testify publicly in favor of keeping the borough intact.
“We ask that we continue to be the Forgotten Borough, in the sense that we be independent, that all three of our districts be ourselves,” the Port Richmond Strong Civic Association said in testimony that referenced the borough’s role in protecting George Washington’s boats from seizure by Lord Charles Cornwallis. “It rescued the American war effort,” the testimony continued.
The wealth of input was among nearly three hours of public comments at a July 7 public hearing at Staten Island Borough Hall that convinced the commission to keep the districts on-island, according to Eddie Borges, the commission’s spokesperson.
“There was a major turnout,” he said. “And that influenced the commissioners.”
Days before the maps were released July 15, Borelli told POLITICO he was “optimistic” the commission would heed his request.
“If someone coughed and it sounded like ‘redistricting commission,’ I reminded them how important it was to keep Staten Island whole,” he said on Monday.
Given his numerical disadvantage on the commission, Borelli would need to forge an alliance or gain the tacit approval of either the mayor’s or the speaker’s camps to protect Staten Island.
Borelli, a Council member for seven years after serving in the state Assembly for two years, came to the table on good terms with the mayor’s team, having sided with them amid the contentious Council speaker’s race in December. The in-house contest sowed the seeds of dissent between the mayor and Brooklyn Council Member Justin Brannan, who represents Bay Ridge, the politically purple district across the water from Staten Island.
Some of the mayor’s top lieutenants have openly expressed disdain for Brannan since that race, so much so that it was widely expected the maps would not favor him in his Bay Ridge seat, where he won reelection by a razor-thin margin in 2021. Weeks before the maps came out, the Bay Ridge Democrats, a club founded by Brannan, tweeted that the neighborhood was in danger of being split into three pieces.
His concern appears justified: When the maps were released, Bay Ridge had been drawn into the same district as the Latino stronghold of Sunset Park, forcing Brannan to potentially face off against Democratic colleague Alexa Avilés. The two have publicly denounced the lines, which the commission says were drawn to create a predominantly Asian district nearby.
Several people involved in the process, who spoke about ongoing negotiations on condition of anonymity, said they believed Borelli teamed up with the mayor — something Borelli would not confirm.
“Nothing is settled until it’s settled,” he said.
Pressed whether his appointees forged an alliance with the mayor’s, he replied: “You’ll have to ask them. … I am aware, of course. But I don’t need to be calling the plays to be the general manager of our small team.”
When asked whether the mayor’s commissioners formed an alliance with Borelli’s — and what role anger at Brannan played in the process — a mayoral spokesperson only praised the mayor’s picks.
“We have full faith in the work of our nominees to the independent Districting Commission, and trust they will unveil a final map that represents the diversity of New York City after additional community input,” mayoral spokesperson Fabien Levy said in a statement.
Commission Chair Dennis Walcott said at a July 15 meeting that the lines were drawn in response to community input.
Borges, the spokesperson, said he did not know whether the mayor’s appointees teamed up with Borelli’s, but the commission did not break into different factions when it voted 11-2, with one abstention, to release a preliminary set of maps earlier this month. One commissioner was on vacation and did not vote.
“This is not a commission where they were organizing and voting together, it was very collegial,” he said, noting that all commissioners had the opportunity to provide input as the maps were being drawn.
Yet not everyone applauded the outcome.
In addition to pitting Brannan and Avilés against each other, an Orthodox Jewish voting bloc in Williamsburg has been carved up, one Bronx politician’s district office is now outside the district he represents and Hell’s Kitchen will now be divided into three districts instead of two.
“[The GOP] want to see Staten Island retain some special status,” said one Democratic Council member who asked not to be named. “And that screws up a lot of the other districts.”
Indeed, the commission’s decision impacts every seat in the city. And members are starting to make their concerns known to Speaker Adrienne Adams, who largely stayed out of the process after appointing her five commissioners — two of whom voted against releasing the new maps — according to multiple people familiar with the process who spoke with POLITICO.
Council spokesperson Breeana Mulligan said the body’s hands-off approach was designed to maintain the commission’s independence.
“Redistricting is about New Yorkers and the representation of our communities, and the public’s interest must be protected from being overtaken by political interests,” she said in a statement. “Now that these first preliminary draft maps have been released, it is imperative that the voices of all New Yorkers be heard to bring us closer to final maps.”
Members expect the speaker to weigh in on the new lines before the commission releases its next round of maps. And the Council will eventually have the opportunity to exercise a one-time veto, which would send the maps back for more revisions.
But Borelli and the GOP will retain the best seat in the house.
“As bizarre as it is, the person who holds the most cards is actually the minority leader,” said one person involved in a previous Council redistricting process. “Because he or she can make the deal.”