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Washington Post


GOP Redistricting: New Boundaries of Politics?
By T. R. Reid
July 2, 2003

DENVER -- The bill was introduced on a Monday, passed on Wednesday and signed into law on Friday. There was minimal debate and no time for public comment. Still, Colorado statute SB-352 could be a political milestone: the first successful application of a new tactic being pushed by Republican leaders in Washington.

The Colorado law redraws the borders of all of the state's congressional districts -- just two years after the redistricting that followed the 2000 Census. The sole purpose, as leaders of the Republican-controlled legislature confirm, was to strengthen the party's majority in the state's congressional delegation.

A similar effort at re-redistricting failed in May in Texas, when Democratic legislators decamped to Oklahoma, making a quorum impossible in the state House of Representatives. But on Monday, Texas Republicans started to try again; Gov. Rick Perry (R) has called a special session to redraw that state's 2001 congressional map. The session is to run for 30 days, making it harder for Democrats to thwart action.

If Texas this time follows the Colorado model, Democrats have warned that they might retaliate, redrawing congressional district maps to strengthen their party in New Mexico and Oklahoma, where Democrats control both the legislature and the governor's office.

"This is a political strategy we haven't seen before," said Tim Storey, redistricting analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "People who study this area can't find any case in the last 100 years of mid-decade redistricting without a court order."

Colorado's new congressional map, passed on straight party-line votes in the last half-hour before the legislature adjourned May 7, has been dubbed the "midnight gerrymander." GOP legislators have been roundly condemned in the local media for violating the state's generally congenial political traditions. "Children, children, what do you think this is? New Jersey?" complained Denver Post political columnist Fred Brown.

GOP leaders are unapologetic.

"Nonpartisanship is not an option," state Senate President John Andrews wrote in a newspaper column responding to critics. "There are only two kinds of Congress to choose from: one where . . . Republicans hold the majority, or one where . . . Democrats do."

Republicans won five of the state's seven House seats in the 2002 election. But Andrews contended that the GOP seats had to be made safer, particularly in the new suburban Denver district and in the sprawling district that makes up the western half of the state. "The Democrats' failure to win either seat in 2002 was small comfort," Andrews said. "The numbers were going to favor them in time."

"Redistricting is almost always a corrupt business," notes Robert Richie, executive director of the Takoma Park-based Center for Voting and Democracy. "But what just happened in Colorado is really disgusting, because what they had before was one of the best districts in the country in terms of being responsive to the voters."

In an era in which most congressional districts are drawn to guarantee safe seats for one party or the other, Colorado bucked the trend after the 2000 Census. The state's new 7th Congressional District was designed to be a political tossup, with one-third of the voters Republican, one-third Democratic and one-third unaffiliated.

Sure enough, the suburban Denver district produced the closest House race in the nation last fall. After several recounts, Republican Bob Beauprez won the seat by 122 votes out of 162,938 cast.

For Republican leaders, that margin was too close, particularly with Democrat Mike Feeley likely to run again in 2004. The legislature's new map gives Beauprez a safe seat, with the most Democratic parts of the 7th Congressional District moved to other districts.

For good measure, Feeley's home was redistricted out of the district, making it nearly impossible for him to challenge Beauprez next year. Beyond the 7th Congressional District, the new Colorado map involves many familiar features of the gerrymandering genre.

Heavily Hispanic Pueblo County has been divided down the middle, so its traditionally Democratic vote will be diluted within two strong Republican districts.

The new map removes the Democrats' stronghold of Aspen from the western-slope district, making that district much safer for Republicans.

Aspen's vote has been shifted into a K-shaped district centered on the university town of Boulder -- about a five-hour drive from Aspen -- so that the two Democratic cities will be in the same district.

Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar, a Democrat, has challenged the re-redistricting in the state's Supreme Court, saying the state constitution authorizes only one districting plan per decade. A group of Democratic voters has filed a second challenge to the GOP measure in a lower state court.

"I wouldn't be surprised if this case goes to the U.S. Supreme Court," said David Fine, the Denver attorney representing the plaintiffs. "Somebody has to decide whether it is legal to redistrict without a new census requiring it."

The trend to create safe congressional districts is a major reason that House incumbents almost never lose and that retiring members are almost always succeeded by members of the same party.

In the 2002 election, 38 of the 435 House races were considered competitive, with margins of victory less than 10 percentage points. Only four House members lost their seats to challengers in 2002; four others were beaten by fellow incumbents.

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