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Owens expects 23rd District may expand

TIMES STAFF WRITER
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New York will lose two seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in the next redistricting, from 29 to 27 seats, according to U.S. Census figures released Tuesday.


The 23rd Congressional District's fate may hang in the balance, but the man holding that seat in the House says he thinks changes to come may be for the better.


"I think we stand a very good chance of seeing our district expand," said Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh.


The state's population grew from 18,976,457 in 2000 to 19,378,102 this year, but its growth was eclipsed by states in the South and West. Those states will gain more of the House's 435 seats.


The average population size of each House district will be 710,767 people, up from 646,952 following the 2000 Census.


"Obviously, we need to make up about 50,000 votes," Mr. Owens said.


The Census Bureau estimated last year that the sprawling, 11-county 23rd Congressional District's population had grown from 654,631 in 2000 to 665,373. Exact county-by-county numbers from the 2010 Census will not be available until early spring, Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves said during a news conference Tuesday announcing population figures for each state.


Once those numbers are in hand, the state Legislature can begin the process of redrawing congressional districts. State Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, said he is in no hurry to start the process when the new session begins next year, and the rest of the Senate's incoming Republican majority probably feels the same way.


"We're kind of putting the cart before the horse," Mr. Griffo said. "The most important priorities should be focusing on the budget, the economy, the state's finances and jobs."


That being said, Mr. Griffo predicts the 23rd District is probably safe. He said an upstate congressional district likely will be consolidated with another district in light of an expected population shift from upstate to New York City, but the north country probably has not lost so much population that the 23rd is at risk.


"I don't know how much bigger the district can get, but I would think because of its uniqueness it would be a difficult seat to change," Mr. Griffo said. "We need to look at the numbers. We really don't know the demographics."


SUNY Oswego political science professor Bruce E. Altschuler said, however, that it's difficult at best to predict what will happen to the congressional district.


"I expect there's a fair-sized target on the 23rd," Mr. Altschuler said. "On the other hand, there are other possibilities. The partisan distribution in the state Legislature does complicate it some because you've got a split in the two houses at the moment. Neither party will be able to ram anything through. We also have an incoming governor who is an unknown quantity."


He said estimated population shifts in Western and Central New York also could play a part in which districts are consolidated, but politics likely will play a bigger role in redistricting.


"Each side will have their own plans," Mr. Altschuler said. "There will probably be some horse-trading going on, where you get votes for the budget in exchange for congressional seats."


The fact that all but one of the state Senate seats in the 23rd Congressional District are held by Republicans, and that Democrats still control the Assembly and the governor's office, could play to the district's advantage, Mr. Owens said.


"Unfortunately, I think we need to see what the commission comes up with before we can really analyze it and decide how to proceed," he said.


Republican state Sen.-elect Patricia A. Ritchie, Heuvelton, said she so far has had no conversations with Senate colleagues about the redistricting, but the fate of the north country's congressional seat is on her mind.


"I want to make sure our representation stays as close to what we have now as possible," she said. "I'll do my best to make sure that happens."

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