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House passes GOP caucus map, but history says courts will ultimately draw the lines

Briana Bierschbach//May 6, 2011//

House passes GOP caucus map, but history says courts will ultimately draw the lines

Briana Bierschbach//May 6, 2011//

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 Peter Bartz-Gallagher)
GOP Rep. Sarah Anderson chairs the House Redistricting Committee, which has released a plan that pits only one incumbent Republican against another. The map also features seven DFL on DFL races, and five Republican on DFL contests. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Tempers flared and debates grew heated around the Capitol over the past week as Republicans in the House put their controversial legislative redistricting map on the table. The map carves up a new political landscape that pits 26 incumbents against one another – 20 in the House and six in the Senate – and all but one of the matchups put a DFLer, or two, in peril.

Passions always run high around redistricting time, and there is more at stake than the big-picture calculus of a given map’s statewide partisan composition. “For the members, it’s really personal,” State Demographer Tom Gillaspy said.

Former Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, echoed that sentiment: “Redistricting always generates hard feelings,” he said of the process, in which he has played a role in the last two cycles. “Until you’ve gone through it, you don’t realize how personally people can take it if you don’t put their grandma in their district.”

But despite the political and personal flashpoints, many of the legislators pitted against one another in the House GOP map say they aren’t worried. Gov. Mark Dayton has said he doesn’t support the current plan, as it lacks bipartisan support; in the all-but-sure event of a gubernatorial veto, the maps would head for the drawing board in the courts, as they have for the last several decades – and courts have historically paid little attention to the maps crafted at the Capitol.

“This is all so preliminary that we aren’t even really talking about it,” said DFL Rep. Alice Hausman, who has been at the Legislature for two rounds of redistricting. After the last redistricting in 2002, the courts pitted her against fellow DFL Rep. Mary Jo McGuire, which caused McGuire to leave the state House. This time, Republicans hope to match her up against Democratic Rep. John Lesch. Anything could happen, she said.

“It’s political theater that only gets played out every 10 years, so the moves can change very radically every decade,” said Gregg Peppin, a GOP operative who helped create the Republican maps in the 2002 round of redistricting. “But it would be total coincidence if the legislative pairings match [those devised by] the court. It’s highly unlikely that they would use any of the partisan criteria that the Legislature uses.”

Courts usually ignore political maps

The drawing of district maps has been rife with political drama for the last few decades, as power has been split along party lines between the governor’s office and the Legislature. “It’s a political process,” said former DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, who was involved in the process in 2002. “The Republicans have control, and they are going to more than likely draw the districts as much as they can to their advantage. Democrats have done the same thing in the past.”

In 1980, the federal courts drew the maps after the DFL-controlled Legislature butted heads with GOP Gov. Al Quie on a plan. The following decade was a fluke. GOP Gov. Arne Carlson missed his veto deadline for the Legislature’s approved plan and tried to apply the red ink late. The courts did not uphold his veto.

In the last round, the government was divided three ways – among a DFL-led Senate, a GOP-controlled House and Independence Party Gov. Jesse Ventura. All three presented conflicting plans. The DFL Senate proposed 20 incumbent matchups, all but one of them pitting Republican versus Republican; the GOP House totaled 15, putting 12 House DFLers together and only two Republicans. Ventura pitted more than 30 incumbent members against one another. But the indecisiveness of the governor and Legislature ultimately put the plan in the hands of the state Supreme Court, which pitted 26 incumbents against one another.

By Peppin’s account, the courts in 2002 pulled from Senate and House plans to draw current Senate districts 56, 28, 22 and 9. They are all districts that line the edges of the state – the easiest areas to draw and often where map creators start. Every other district was drawn differently by the courts, Peppin said, and most of the incumbent matchups envisaged by politicians were tossed out in the process.

Pogemiller said the courts would be unlikely to consider any legislative plan but could again draw the same districts in the corner and border areas of the state.

“Even though some of the districts look alike, I don’t think there is much evidence that the court looks at the map,” Pogemiller said. “I think the court will do what the court will do.” He added that the U.S. Supreme Court has directed the state courts to prioritize and preserve court district lines as much as possible and avoid incumbent-on-incumbent races in redistricting.

‘The first map of many’

House Republican Redistricting Chairwoman Sarah Anderson’s plan for the current redistricting process pits only one incumbent Republican against another: GOP Rep. Paul Torkelson would face off against nine-term Republican Rep. Bob Gunther in the south central part of the state. The map also features 10 open seats. The rest of the breakdown involves seven DFL on DFL races, and five Republican on DFL contests. (See the accompanying sidebar for a breakdown.)

Of the incumbent races, only the House race between Reps. Larry Howes and John Persell and the Senate contest between Sens. Gary Dahms and Gary Kubly are in the bordering districts that Pogemiller and Peppin say are often coincidentally drawn similarly by the courts. The rest of the matchups could easily be lost in a newly drawn court map.

DFL Sen. Scott Dibble, who is pitted against DFL Sen. Ken Kelash, said this is “the first map of many to come. I’m not spending any time or even dissipating any energy on this map that was hatched in some secret place somewhere.”

No maps from Democrats?

While courts seem to rely little on political maps created in the Legislature, many believe it’s smart to at least present a version for judges to consider.

“There are always competing plans from both chambers, and sometimes even the minority parties and the governor,” Gillaspy said. “Sometimes they don’t even agree on the principles that must be followed when creating the maps.” During the 2002 round of redistricting, the courts had at least five versions of the map at their disposal: two from each chamber (majority and minority party plans) and one from the governor.

But Senate Redistricting Chairman Geoff Michel said his plan will likely be close, if not identical, to the House redistricting plan, meaning legislative Republicans will leave the session with a single map that could be consulted in the event of a court redistricting process. Neither Dayton nor the DFL minorities in both chambers have presented an alternative. A source in Dayton’s office said no map is currently in the works, and Pogemiller said his caucus has yet to decide if they will create their own plan.

“[Minority parties creating a map] has traditionally been the practice,” Anderson said, “so I was really surprised that they didn’t have a plan at all, but to each his own, I guess. It’s kind of hard to complain about something if you don’t offer any solutions yourself.”

But the DFL may be planning to lawyer up for the upcoming battle instead of relying on the courts to consult their maps. “Everybody has hired lawyers already,” Pogemiller said. Dayton has brought on Peter Wattson, a former secretary of the Senate and a nationally recognized redistricting expert, as his general counsel. Wattson has been a key player in creating past maps. Peppin said Wattson will almost certainly play an important role in any plan of action advanced by the governor’s office.

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