New York Redistricting Czar Urges People To Go Local

“I get seasick. My wife’s the sailor,” joked David Imamura, a lawyer specializing in white collar crime, now Chair of New York State’s (NYS) Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC), on his NYS listening tour. Monday brought him upstate to Binghamton; Wednesday to Syracuse; and Thursday to Plattsburg. New York City’s many districts are yet to come before Imamura’s team submits final lines to the NYS legislature for its approval early next year.

Imamura, who is on leave from a prestigious New York City law firm to help his home state redraw district lines to more accurately reflect today’s voters, was answering Driving Change’s query in an interview last week: “Did family draw him to public service?”

Yes, he agreed, the epic journeys of his grandfathers during World War II inspired him. One grandfather — lost at sea for 133 days was the sole survivor of a British ship after it was torpedoed (a Guinness Book of World Records award for solo survival) — scored U.S. citizenship solely because of an exemption to the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Imamura’s other grandfather fought in the highly decorated Japanese-American 42nd infantry while his peers suffered in internment camps. But Imamura modestly shrugged off references to inherited fortitude or tenacity. Rather, he said, the country’s topsy-turvy embrace of both men, both immigrants drove him to do whatever he could to tilt the balance back towards a more welcoming country.

It’s often not who is qualified who does these things; it is who is willing to do the work.

“My family has seen America at its best, forging through adversity in fighting for the U.S. But then also seeing how the country was not as welcoming in return,” Imamura said. “That really stuck with me. It is up to us to make America what we want.” That, perhaps, drew his mother, also a lawyer, to volunteer with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Politics, he said was “kitchen table” talk.

Imamura’s corporate sounding title belies his many political contributions. In high school he volunteered on campaigns. At Dartmouth College he did the same during the New Hampshire Presidential primary of Bill Richardson, former U.S. Energy Secretary and Governor of New Mexico. “That campaign gave me perspective. Government has sliding scale policy preferences and you get to figure it out,” he remembered.

After Columbia Law School Imamura helped author a book on electoral treatise (a work in progress). At his law firm, he won recognition for pro-bono work examining New York City’s police disciplinary system. In his hometown of Irvington, he has served as the Democratic District Leader. There Imamura’s helped pass the first Sanctuary City law outside New York City, then he moved on to Westchester County. “Two years out of law school, I helped draft Westchester’s Immigrant Protection Act. I’m really proud of that,” he said. “The law said ‘hate has no place, everyone is welcome in this county’. It saved people from deportation.”

Which leads to Imamura’s current role. At 33, he leads a team of ten to ensure that NYS voters are fairly represented in a nation reeling over election squabbles. Unanimously elected to this role by all NYS IRC Commissioners, Imamura is the youngest on his team — an equal mix of Democrats and Republicans, plus one Independent and one Conservative.

Why redistricting, we asked. Why does it matter? “Today too many voices are not heard, too few decide outcomes,” Imamura said. “Politics is representation. They say ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re lunch.’”

“Prior to IRC’s formation, average New Yorkers could not weigh in on districting. It was entirely driven by folks in the legislature in an incredibly opaque process. Electoral districts drive action, so whether a community was united or divided determined its voice reaching Albany and Washington,” Imamura explained.

Politics can be discouraging. [But] government can have a real impact on communities

“Now we say ‘tell us about your neighborhood.’ People can say ‘our voices haven’t been heard’, and we can make modifications [to district lines] accordingly,” Imamura continued, noting a landmark Rochester, NY case of gerrymandering. The four resulting districts running hundreds of miles north, south, east, and west of Rochester meant far away neighbors’ voices drowned out those of the city. “Both parties’ want to do away with that,” he said. “It’s coming to an end. We need [electoral] maps that don’t advantage one party, that represent the people in those communities.”

To correct and direct the chorus of voices per district –“in some parts of New York City you pass five different districts in five blocks,” Imamura observed — he and his team are working double time, urging citizens across the state to weigh in on representation at two local hearings per city or county.

Imamura skirted questions about his future in public service, calling his prior political work “a hobby” while underscoring the need to answer the call to service. “It’s been a privilege to help people who did not have a voice in Washington, who have felt marginalized for decades. I deeply care about the ability of government to help people,” he said. “I don’t intend to go away.”

What might Imamura tell students mulling government work? “Be present, be active, be generous with your time,” he advised. “Change starts on the local level. And your ability to make change there is quite easy. Knocking on doors, making calls for an issue very easily translates into something more substantive such as advocacy, into making a real difference.  Build a network, learn how things work, and take that knowledge to effect real change.”

“Politics can be discouraging. [But] government can have a real impact on communities,” Imamura continued. “It’s easier than you think to make things better for your neighbors. There’s no higher calling,” he said, noting how unqualified he felt to draft Westchester County’s sanctuary city law. “But it’s often not who is qualified who does these things; it is who is willing to do the work. It’s good for all of us to try to make America a bit better — a more perfect union. You are the ones we’ve been waiting for, to take the lead.”

Carolyn Whelan

Carolyn is a writer, editor and analyst who covers the nexus between business and social justice issues. She broke into journalism at the Rio Earth Summit where she interviewed Al Gore and environmental pioneer David Brower. Topics covered since then range from climate change and higher education costs to drugs pricing, geopolitical strife, business ethics, artificial intelligence, gene editing, alternative energy and the search for good jobs -- and innovation in all these areas. Her pieces, reported from Europe, the US and South America have appeared in Fortune, Newsweek, the International Herald Tribune, the Wall Street Journal and Previously she worked for the Economist Intelligence Unit,, Columbia Business School, WWF, the UN and PwC. Carolyn is fluent in French and Spanish and resides in Brooklyn.

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