Elbridge Gerry was one of the founding Fathers, a congressman, governor, and Vice President of the United States. Gerry risked execution by the British for signing the Declaration of Independence, and later served as America’s representative to France. However, these accomplishments are not where Gerry’s legacy lies today.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of Gerry’s devious plan to keep his political party in power during his reign as Governor of Massachusetts.
The redistricting of 1812 was up and Governor Gerry took control of the process, cutting his opponents’ homes out of their districts. The Boston newspapers were outraged and labeled the plan “Gerrymandering.”
Governor Gerry was run out of office in the next election, but Gerrymandering lived on.
I became a casualty of Gerrymandering. Over twenty years ago I ran against an incumbent for a seat in the New York State Assembly. It was 1990, and after I lost the election the incumbent had the block I lived on cut out of the district.
I wasn’t surprised; that’s what happens in Brooklyn politics. So I packed my stuff and moved 14 blocks away into the new district. I registered to vote and ran for office again.
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The political machine didn’t appreciate my persistence so an example had to be set. I was indicted on seven felony counts, the charge being “false registration and illegal voting.”
The gravamen of the crime was that the house that I voted from in that one year was not my “principal and permanent” residence.
While being fingerprinted and photographed, I realized my real crime was that I ran for office and lost, and now I was facing 28 years in prison.
You see, contrary to the writings of de Tocqueville, America is not a Democracy, it’s a Republic. And for a Republic to survive it depends on candidates running for office. The uniqueness of the charge was meant to be a warning to other insurgents who were planning to challenge the status quo. The last time someone was convicted for illegal voting in New York State was in 1873. The defendant in that case was Susan B. Anthony.
What followed was a Kafkaesque series of trials that spun into one of the most expensive criminal cases in New York’s history. People v O’Hara turned into three trials and a dozen appeals going all the way to the Supreme Court.
I was ultimately sentenced to five years probation, $20,000 in fines, disbarred as an attorney, and required to perform 1,500 hours of community service. Gerrymandering now had consequences.
Harper’s Magazine investigated this saga and in 2004 published an article titled “Meet the New Boss.” It was uncovered that the incumbent I ran against teamed up with the prosecutor to be his investigator, posing as a journalist to interview witnesses. For years I was the target of surveillance, grand jury subpoenas and sting operations. The district attorney’s office went through twenty years of my personal records in the guise of investigating my “residence.”
Every check I wrote, credit card receipt and tax return was hauled into the grand jury. The mailman, my landlord, neighbors, and friends I had known since grade school all got grand jury subpoenas. I understood why people would shun me.
With no evidence of a crime it was decided to lock me up for “voting.” We like to believe justice is blind, but a prosecutor gets his job by either winning an election, or being appointed by a politician. That’s politics, whether we like it or not.
Did Elbridge Gerry ever think that 200 years after “Gerrymandering,” it would be his actions that set the wheels in motion for felony prosecutions? I doubt it. But, somehow, I don’t think he would have objected.
John O’Hara lives in Brooklyn. He was reinstated to practice law and has an on-line petition supporting his quest for a pardon from Governor Andrew Cuomo. It can be viewed at www.freejohnohara.com.