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A New Land of Enchantment?

New Mexico Democrats Consider Redrawing Congressional Map

A move last week by Democrats in New Mexico to redraw the state’s Congressional districts prior to the 2004 election has led to threats by national Republicans about the nationwide consequences of such an effort.

If Democrats, who regained full control of state government in New Mexico last year, proceed with their plans to redraw the lines for the state’s three House districts, then Republicans who took over in bigger states might be compelled to do the same.

“New Mexico Democrats would be the first people in the country to open up the redistricting process again,” said one GOP strategist. “That would mobilize Republicans who are a little bit gun shy to reopen the redistricting process in states like Texas.”

The Texas Legislature, which is now controlled by Republicans, is being pressured by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) to redraw the state’s districts, which yielded 17 Democrats and 15 Republicans in the 2002 election.

Legislators in Georgia, Oklahoma and Colorado have also discussed revisiting redistricting, although it seems a remote possibility in each state. Colorado and Georgia are now in Republican hands; Democrats have taken control in Oklahoma.

“If New Mexico is successful [in redrawing the lines] it will set a precedent nationwide that gives the advantage to Republicans,” said a GOP aide.

Democrats outside the Land of Enchantment also expressed deep concerns about the plan citing the potentially negative impact of revisiting the map in New Mexico.

“For Democrats, it makes sense to stay out of this briar patch,” said one aide familiar with the national redistricting scene. “If you are Tom DeLay, you trade New Mexico for a chance to redraw Texas any day.”

Despite the fact that a number of states have flirted with the idea of a redistricting revamp, there is little historical precedent.

“I can’t think of any examples where a state completely reopened the process of redistricting and made substantial changes to plans for the sole purpose of altering the partisan balance,” said Tim Storey, redistricting analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.“This is not something legislators are dying to do. Redistricting is seen as a necessary evil.”

For now, however, New Mexico Democrats appear committed to adjusting the lines of the 1st district in order to bolster the American Indian population, which would aid their efforts to knock off Rep. Heather Wilson (R). Storey said the urgency among Democrats in the state is largely a result of the shortness of their legislative session, which must end on March 21.

Democrats have targeted Wilson repeatedly since she won a June 1998 special election with 48 percent to fill the seat of the late Rep. Steven Schiff (R). Wilson has steadily increased her winning margins since that special, however. In the 1998 general election, she won with 48 percent in a three-way race; she took 50 percent in 2000 and boosted her margin to 55 percent in the last election.

The current House lines in New Mexico are the product of a court-drawn map, which followed a deadlock between the Democratic-controlled Legislature and then-Gov. Gary Johnson (R).

When Johnson vetoed the Democratic plan in June 2001, state Senate President Richard Romero (D), who went on to unsuccessfully challenge Wilson, told Roll Call, “I still strongly believe that redistricting is a legislative and not a judicial process.” He did not return several calls for comment for this story.

Romero is leading the charge again this session. His cause is bolstered by the victory of Gov. Bill Richardson (D) in 2002, which restored complete Democratic control over the levers of redistricting.

The first plan offered by Senate Democrats stalled in the Rules Committee on Thursday, but knowledgeable observers indicated that other proposals are likely to be forwarded before the session ends.

One Democratic aide urged caution in the process because “[the 1st] is a winnable district as it is.”

Centered in Albuquerque, the district would have given Al Gore (D) a narrow 48 percent to 47 percent victory over George W. Bush (R) in the 2000 presidential election and is seen by political analysts as one of the true tossup districts in the country.

Any change in the district lines could affect both freshman Rep. Steve Pearce (R), who took 56 percent in an open-seat contest in 2002, and Rep. Tom Udall (D), elected in 1998 to the northern New Mexico 3rd district.

“We don’t know if this is constitutionally sound,” warned Pearce spokeswoman Gail Gitcho. “This is going to cost the taxpayers a lot of money.”

Roughly $4 million was spent on redistricting in New Mexico over the past two years.

New Mexico is the latest in a growing list of states pondering a rerun of the redistricting process. The most high-profile effort has been in Texas, where DeLay, along with Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), has been urging GOP state legislators to take advantage of their newfound control of state government to alter the Congressional map.

Republicans picked up 16 seats in the state House in November 2002 and now hold an 88-to-62 advantage.

The map used in the 2002 Texas election was drawn by a three-judge federal panel after a stalemate in the Legislature. It preserved the status quo, re-electing all 17 Democrats in the delegation while rewarding Republicans with the two new seats gained in reapportionment, bringing their ranks up to 15.

The process was widely seen as a blow to DeLay, who had predicted Republicans could gain six to eight seats in Texas alone.

Despite DeLay’s aggressiveness, there has been little movement in either the Texas state House or Senate to redraw the map. A House redistricting committee has been formed and GOP legislators have asked the Republican attorney general whether they bear a responsibility to restructure the lines. The real test, however, would come in the state Senate, where a two-thirds majority would be required to pass a bill. Republicans hold 19 seats to Democrats’ 12.

Texas Democrats are clearly concerned about the prospect of a reshaping of the state’s lines, especially given tight 2002 races involving Democratic Reps. Charlie Stenholm — who won 51 percent of the vote — and Chet Edwards — who got 52 percent.

Meanwhile in Georgia, GOP hopes for redrawing the Congressional districts have diminished since Democrats were able to maintain their hold on the House speakership last month.

Republicans had hoped to install a Democratic speaker friendly to their new governor.

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