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DFLers join redistricting tussle

Briana Bierschbach//September 30, 2011

DFLers join redistricting tussle

Briana Bierschbach//September 30, 2011

Vic Thorstenson, who is the Senate DFL lead on redistricting, and Jaime Tincher, his counterpart in the House, have been creating a map and plan to attend the public hearings of a five-judge redistricting panel. (Staff photos: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)
State party, minority caucuses will advance maps in 2012

Democrats in Minnesota have been slow to rise to the redistricting fight this time around.

During session, DFL caucuses in the Minnesota House and Senate passed on the chance to produce maps to counter a GOP majority proposal that pitted 26 incumbents against one another, the vast majority of them DFLers.

Democrats say they abstained in part because the process was almost completely closed to the public.

“Our whole point during the legislative session was trying to get the majority to hold hearings and not just produce maps and announce a hearing 12 hours before, but actually to go out and get public comment before and after maps were drawn,” said Vic Thorstenson, the Senate DFL lead on redistricting.

But now the process is going public — albeit with no help from either party — as the five-judge panel appointed by Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea starts a slew of hearings across the state next week. DFL groups are now jumping into the process as well and bringing with them diverging opinions about how best to proceed.

The field is suddenly crowded: The DFL Party has retained legal heavyweights like David Lillehaug. Outside the confines of the party, one former DFL legislator who may run next fall has hired an attorney and intervened in the process; two independent but DFL-friendly groups will produce a handful of maps to submit to the courts; and both DFL caucuses plan to introduce a map of their own early next legislative session.

Meanwhile, however, the administration of Gov. Mark Dayton plans to stay out of the process in the courts, apparently owing in large part to the departure of key staffers like former Senate counsel Peter Wattson.

DFL Party lawyers up

DFL Chairman Ken Martin, along with other Democrats, has petitioned to join the contest as the case gets under way, and they have enlisted two of the most prominent DFL attorneys in the country. The DFL redistricting legal team will be led by Washington, D.C., lawyer Marc Elias and Lillehaug, a Minneapolis attorney with Fredrikson & Byron. Martin could not be reached for comment.

Lillehaug’s name has been attached to nearly every high-profile DFL legal case in the past several years, including the 2008 U.S. Senate recount battle between U.S. Sen. Al Franken and predecessor Norm Coleman. In the last 18 months alone, Lillehaug has represented DFL interests in cases questioning the constitutionality of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s use of unallotment, the recount battle last fall between Tom Emmer and Dayton, and the size and scope of the state government shutdown this summer. He was successful in every case.

He’s no stranger to electoral politics, either. Lillehaug was the lead attorney and senior political adviser to the U.S. Senate campaigns for Paul Wellstone in 2002 and Amy Klobuchar in 2006. In 2000 he ran for U.S. Senate but lost the endorsement battle to former state Sen. Jerry Janezich. Lillehaug declined to comment for this story.

Elias and his Perkins Coie law firm represent the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) and numerous U.S. senators and representatives. He is an outside counsel to President Barack Obama and also serves as counsel to the National Democratic Redistricting Trust. Along with Minnesota, Elias will represent Democratic interests in redistricting cases in Texas and Nevada. Elias and Lillehaug worked together on the 2008 recount battle and on Dayton’s 2010 recount team.

Despite the attorneys’ ties to Dayton, they will not represent his interests in court. In fact, Dayton’s office doesn’t plan to be involved in redistricting until it comes back to the Legislature. “We are not directly involved at this point,” Dayton Deputy Chief of Staff Bob Hume said in an email. “If and when this comes back to the Legislature … we will engage [the issue] in whatever form it takes.”

Initially the governor’s office seemed poised to play a major role in the fray. Early on Dayton announced that former Senate counsel and redistricting guru Peter Wattson was to serve as his general counsel. Wattson, who is considered one of the leading redistricting experts in the nation, was to lead the effort for Dayton’s office. But after his abrupt retirement earlier this year, and redistricting staffer Sean Rahn’s subsequent departure for a job at Best Buy, the administration has found itself with few staff resources in the redistricting battle.

Caucuses wait for session

This is Thorstenson’s second time working on redistricting, an opportunity he relishes as one in a small class of wonky politicos who are fascinated by political map drawing. “It’s so much fun,” he said. He was the lead Senate staffer on redistricting during the 2001-02 process, a year he claims produced one of the fairest political maps in Minnesota history, mainly because the Legislature and executive branch were divided among all three major parties.
“What we ended up with was probably … the most demonstrably fair legislative map the state has probably ever seen,” he said. “The proof is really in the electoral pudding.”

And while no map was made public by the House and Senate DFL caucuses during session this year, that doesn’t mean they haven’t been working on one. Thorstenson — along with House DFL redistricting lead Jaime Tincher and technician Tom DesLauriers — have been creating a map and plan to sit in on the court’s public hearings. After final changes, the caucuses plan to introduce the map at the start of next session and try to pass a final version before the Feb. 21 redistricting deadline. “We have about a month to pass something before that [deadline] comes,” Thorstenson said.

And despite what’s seen as demographic trends that favor Republicans, Thorstenson thinks Democrats will come out on top as the lines are drawn. While Republicans point to growth in GOP-leaning suburban districts over the last decade, Thorstenson says the state’s population increase was mostly in the minority community.

“We think the maps should reflect that,” he said. “The Republicans have said the increase in population is somewhere like Wright County, Republican territory. We are not trying to necessarily produce maps for the good of the old DFL, but given the kind of candidates each side puts forward and the way the district lines fall, we will beat them more times than not. Our candidates tend to be more tolerant in their political views.”

A former House DFL caucus member will also be in the legal mix, mounting a battle of his own. DFL-aligned attorney Alan Weinblatt filed a suit earlier this year in federal court on behalf of former Rep. David Bly and other DFLers that asks for an order to intervene in the redistricting process. While the federal case has been stayed in order to see if the state makes progress, Weinblatt has successfully managed to intervene in the state’s case.

Weinblatt and Bly — who has told Capitol Report that he is seriously considering running for office again in 2012 — plan to create their own map to present to the courts. “I think that my clients are looking more long-term than the DFLers,” Weinblatt said. “They are not officeholders.”

Interest groups to submit maps

Two groups that have gotten involved in the redistricting process have pegged their efforts as nonpartisan, but as far as most Republicans are concerned, they’re doing the bidding of the DFL.

One effort, headed by Common Cause Minnesota, hopes to produce between 30 and 40 citizen maps that will ultimately be judged by a panel that includes University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs, former Independence Party candidate Tim Penny and former GOP House Speaker Steve Sviggum, state director Mike Dean said. In the end, Dean hopes to submit a handful of finished maps to the courts. “You don’t what a good map looks like until you’ve seen multiple maps,” he said.

Another group, Draw the Line Minnesota, is a joint effort of Common Cause, Take Action Minnesota, the League of Women Voters and the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. The group can boast participants from all political parties, including Independence Party spokesman Matt Lewis; Kent Kaiser, former staffer for GOP Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer; and DFL Senate District 58 Director Kenya McKnight. Like the Common Cause group, Draw the Line also wants to submit several maps for the courts to review, and it has been holding public hearings around the state to gather input.

Also like Common Cause, Draw the Line has been criticized by GOPers — mainly in the blogosphere — for being left-leaning. Republican bloggers note that the group receives funding from liberal philanthropist George Soros.
“I think we’ve ticked some people off in the right-wing blogosphere,” said David Wheeler, the group’s director. All of their public hearings, he says, have been videotaped by Republicans. “I’m sure the DFLers have done stuff, too. I’ve got to be honest, both those groups, they’ve got strong political agendas that they want to have happen. What we are doing is about bringing the public into the process.”

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