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Redistricting: Here we go again

Charley Shaw//January 19, 2011//

Redistricting: Here we go again

Charley Shaw//January 19, 2011//

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 Peter Bartz-Gallagher)
Senate Deputy Majority Leader Geoff Michel will head his chamber’s redistricting subcommittee. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Courts have redrawn map for decades; will this time be any different?

With Minnesota’s Census numbers expected to arrive as early as the middle of next month, state lawmakers are already laying plans to redraw Minnesota legislative districts and the state’s eight congressional districts. But the partisan divide between Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican majorities in the Legislature portend a round of redistricting that is likely to fall apart – just as it has done in the face of divided governments over the past four decades.

New boundaries need to be drawn by the 2012 elections. But with the political perils of redistricting only adding to the inevitable strife lawmakers face in solving the $6.2 billion budget deficit, the odds are high that the courts will be the final arbiters of the new map, said Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota.

“When you combine the reality that this Legislature is threatened with capsizing because of the work it’s got on board, it’s really a question mark about whether they will be able to put out a credible map and have both parties agree on it,” Jacobs said.

Minnesota governors, with some exceptions, have a history of keeping their distance from the political fighting over redistricting that takes place among legislators. In 1991, Gov. Arne Carlson waited so long to veto the districts drawn by DFLers in the Legislature that his formal veto message was not dispatched until after the clock struck 12 on the last night of the legislative session.

Tim Penny, a former congressman and advocate for redistricting reforms, said he thinks it is possible that Dayton will opt to spend his political capital elsewhere than on the front lines of redistricting.

“There’s a possibility he may feel this is a constitutional responsibility,” Penny said, “so even though the Legislature is controlled by the Republican Party, he might want to do a map jointly. But he’s faced with so many issues that require bipartisan cooperation that I’m not sure he wants to spend a lot of time on this.”

Legislators contemplating a court solution could be influenced by the composition of the Minnesota Supreme Court, which is populated mostly by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s appointees. That could lead Republicans to favor punting the issue to the courts, said former DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe.

“Let’s be very candid about redistricting,” he said. “The team that thinks they have the upper hand will play it the way they feel gives them the most advantage. My guess is the Republicans feel they have a better shot with the courts than the Democrats.”

Redistricting stokes a lot of political fear among politicians. But Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, a veteran of redistricting efforts who has reintroduced a bill to create a commission to draw the map, said worries that redistricting will be used to gerrymander the map are often overblown.

“People overestimate the amount of political impact you can have through map drawing,” Pogemiller said, “and they underestimate the political capital you have to spend to get one done. In the end, demographics trump these political machinations in determining how elections are going to turn out.”

To wit, the so-called doughnut ring around the Twin Cities metropolitan area saw the most growth in the last decade. The Census numbers, demographers point out, will show population growth in those communities disproportionate to the changes in the urban core of the Twin Cities and in rural Minnesota. The exurban areas will see their political power increase when the new districts are drawn, regardless of any chicanery on the part of the politician map makers.

“The exurban districts will need to get [geographically] smaller,” said State Demographer Tom Gillaspy.

The fears about a power grab are also exaggerated when it comes to areas of rigid political stability. Republican and DFLers both have many safe districts that will not be altered by redistricting. Because the courts have strict guidelines for the shape, size and composition of districts, the future of Republican domination in areas like District 33 around Minnetrista is not in jeopardy. Likewise, DFLers will not say goodbye to their urban core bases like St. Paul’s District 64, where incumbents have long political lives.

But even though there are limitations in the extent to which new maps can overthrow the status quo in Minnesota politics, the pencil marks on the drafting table can alter the competitiveness in some political battleground districts.

“Generally they can get it done down to about a half-dozen seats where it’s difficult,” Moe said, “and members end up getting put in the same districts.”

The howls of protest that have arisen over the contested situations that inevitably arise in redistricting have prompted academics like Jacobs and a score of venerable politicians like Moe and former Republican Gov. Al Quie to call for a new redistricting policy that takes away lawmakers’ role in drawing the maps.

Pogemiller’s bill would create a panel of retired judges to draw the maps. Legislators and the governor would then decide whether the judges’ plan should be enacted as the state’s official political boundaries.

With some members of his own party voting no in May 2009, Pogemiller’s bill passed 31-24 as a floor amendment. But it died for lack of a House companion.

Pogemiller’s bill was opposed by Rep. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, who became the Senate DFL’s top leader after Democrats lost the majority in last November’s election. Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, who is the new majority’s Redistricting Subcommittee chairman, voted in favor of the Pogemiller bill.

Pogemiller, who said he is open to having a member of the new Republican majority carry his bill, introduced the redistricting commission bill as one of the first five bills introduced this session. He has requested that Senate State Government Innovation Chairman Mike Parry, R-Waseca, hold a hearing on his commission proposal.

With redistricting committees already holding hearings, any proposals need to be heard and acted upon quickly to stand a chance of being implemented for the current round of redistricting.

“If you’re going to do something,” Gillaspy said, “this would be the time to look at an alternative way of doing redistricting.”

The traditional redistricting process got under way with the news last month that Minnesota held onto its eight congressional seats in the latest national apportionment. Lawmakers and staff are now waiting for Census results (due sometime between mid-February and mid-March) that will serve as the official population count on which redistricting will be based.

States with special electoral concerns receive their numbers the earliest. Minnesota could get special consideration because lawmakers moved the state’s partisan primary earlier in the election year to accommodate soldiers and other people voting overseas. Gillaspy said he hopes this means the numbers will arrive by late February.

“We have argued that because of the change in the primary date, we have a month less and we should be placed towards the earlier part of the queue,” he noted.

If lawmakers proceed under the current process of drawing their own maps, it’s very unlikely they will pass a map before the session is over. Gillaspy said the four legislative caucuses will huddle together for a considerable amount of time while being fed information from the Legislative Geographic Information Service.

“It’s going to be a big rush of energy up front,” Gillaspy said. “Then it will settle into the four caucuses at their own work stations doing their own thing, and that will go through the summer and the fall. The legislative and congressional districts have to be completed 25 weeks before the primary. That sets Feb. 21 of 2012 as the deadline.”

If lawmakers fail yet again to enact new district boundaries, it will not be for lack of expertise at the staff level. Key players with technical acumen include the GOP’s Michael Brodkorb, the House DFL’s Jaime Tincher and Gov. Mark Dayton’s general counsel, Peter Wattson.

Brodkorb, who is the Senate GOP’s communications director, has been tapped by the state Republican Party to act as the point person on redistricting. He was the lead staffer for the Senate Republicans on the last round of redistricting efforts. Tincher brings a reputation for applying sophisticated computer-assisted targeting to her political work with the DFL Party and, more recently, Margaret Anderson Kelliher’s gubernatorial campaign. Wattson is a nationwide redistricting expert who has worked has worked on the last four rounds of redistricting when he was a lawyer in the Senate Counsel office.

The House and Senate have established separate redistricting panels. Neither Michel on the Senate side, nor Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, on the House side, can claim any depth of knowledge and experience on redistricting. One member on a redistricting panel said he was appointed to the committee with little knowledge of redistricting and without expressing an interest in serving on the committee.

In an interview with Capitol Report’s sister publication Politics in Minnesota after being named redistricting chairman, Michel said Republicans will act in “good faith” with Dayton. But he added that redistricting will not grind the session to a halt if talks falter.

“If it appears that we are making little progress, I am not interested in wasting valuable time and resources,” Michel said.

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