ALBANY — A former Senate staffer accepted an offer to become the newest member of the Independent Redistricting Commission after a commissioner resigned last month, bringing the group back to its full 10 members before redrawing New York’s elective districts.
John Conway, 71, was surprised to get a call last month from Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda. Conway spent decades as a Senate staffer and was the commissioner of the Legislative Bill Drafting Commission from 2011 to his retirement in 2017.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” Conway said Tuesday, adding with a chuckle, “Apparently, I hadn’t been that far gone.”
Conway worked in the Senate from 1987 to 2011 for the late Sen. Roy Goodman and in the 9th District under former Republican Sen. Dean Skelos, who was convicted on federal corruption charges in 2015.
Originally from Rochester, Conway lives in Latham, Albany County. He and his wife have lived in the Capital Region for more than four decades.
Conway knew Ortt and commissioners Charlie Nesbitt and Jack Martins, a former Republican senator from Long Island’s 7th District, from his legislative career.
“It’s exciting,” Conway said of his appointment. “The people I do know that are on the commission who I’ve worked with before have always been good people to deal with, and I think it will be a great step forward.”
State lawmakers drew district maps requiring passage in both houses of the Legislature until voters in 2014 approved a change to the state Constitution creating the independent, bipartisan commission.
“It will be a positive addition to the state,” Conway said. “I find it very interesting and am excited to see how it all plays out,”
Conway was appointed to fill the vacant spot after former commissioner George Winner, a Republican former legislator in the Finger Lakes, stepped down May 5 after language in the 2021-22 state budget delegated commissioners as legislative employees, which requires them to publicly disclose financial records.
Conway continues to privately practice law. His father, John J. Conway Jr., served in the state Assembly representing Monroe County, and was first elected Nov. 5, 1957.
“Leader Rob Ortt was proud to appoint John Conway to serve on the Independent Redistricting Commission,” said Senate Republican spokeswoman Katy Delgado. “Having previously served as commissioner of the Legislative Bill Drafting Commission and other roles both in government and the private sector, John has a distinguished record of service to the people of New York. Leader Ortt has repeatedly expressed his support for the important mission of the Independent Redistricting Commission. He is confident Mr. Conway’s will work with his fellow commissioners to independently carry out the task the voters of the state entrusted them to do.”
Conway participated in the commission’s Friday meeting as his first order of business.
Redistricting Commission co-executive directors Doug Breakell and Karen Blatt are working to create and solidify the commission’s website for public information and engagement and determine physical office spaces for the group in New York City and the Capital Region.
Blatt and Breakell interviewed and hired Miranda Goodwin-Raab as the commission’s assistant director of engagement, who will help design the group’s website. Getting the site live is the staffers’ top priority, they said.
Job listings for the commission’s public engagement director, a data manager and administrative assistant remain posted on several employment sites.
“Karen and I have been pretty busy — we’re going through all of our interview process,” Breakell said. “We’re working through all of our administrative needs as far as office space and trying to determine that as well.”
Directors continue to search for brick-and-mortar office space and tour potential locations, which Blatt and Breakell did not specify.
Martins pushed the directors on the time frame for a website, when commissioners will have legislative email addresses and when staffers will be hired.
“I can’t give you an exact date when this is all going to come together, but what I can say is that we’re working on it attentively and as quickly as possible,” Blatt said.
The remaining staff will be hired within the next two to three weeks.
“We’re doing a lot of interviewing, also,” Blatt added. “It’s very time-consuming.”
Commissioners are expected to have live assembly.ny.gov email addresses by the end of next week for administrative purposes. The Independent Redistricting Commission operates as a separate entity from the Legislature.
Commissioners plan to hold a round of 18 preliminary hearings across the state for public input on the redistricting process in July. New Yorkers who participate can help identify their communities for commissioners to take into consideration when redrawing state Senate, Assembly and congressional districts.
“We want people to identify what your communities of interest are,” Commission Chairman David Imamura said. “It doesn’t have to be geographic — it can be language, it can be shared employers, it can be a school. We want to talk about current district lines and how they intersect with your communities of interest.”
Commissioner John Flateau noted the group needs to be mindful of the five protected classes of voters — Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American and Hawaiian or other pacific islander — under the federal Voting Rights Act during public engagement.
A person must be a state resident and provide their name and county of residence to testify or provide public input.
The meetings will take place at an undetermined date, time and location in Albany, Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, White Plains, Bronx County, Kings County, New York County, Queens County, Richmond County, Nassau County, Suffolk County and in the North Country and the Southern Tier.
Constitutionally mandated hearings will be held in September after the commission releases its drafted maps with at least 30 days’ notice.
Commissioners expect to hold a press conference to address the public and take questions in the coming weeks.
The commission has not set its next meeting date while the directors finalize details.