A bold Republican effort to redraw Colorado’s seven Congressional districts was expected to win final passage late Wednesday night, at the same time a GOP plan to obliterate several Democratic House seats was advancing in the Texas Legislature.
The Colorado vote caps a wild week of unprecedented political tensions in the state Capitol, as the GOP sought to solidify vulnerable freshman Rep. Bob Beauprez (R) as well as the district now held by Rep. Scott McInnis (R).
But the issues at play were far greater than just Colorado Congressional politics, encompassing everything from: control of the House to the rights of Hispanic voters; the national ambitions of Colorado Gov. Bill Owens (R); the role White House political guru Karl Rove is playing in state and local affairs; and the makeup of the Colorado state Board of Regents.
Even though Owens has not yet said whether he intends to sign the redistricting bill, national and state Democrats and other organizations are signaling their intention to sue to overturn any new redistricting plan. Colorado’s top-ranked Democrat, Attorney General Ken Salazar, has already said that his office will not defend the state in court.
“This is just a huge mess,” said Josh Freed, a spokesman for Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), who spent Tuesday and part of the weekend at the state Capitol, lobbying legislators to kill the redistricting bill and holding angry news conferences with other leading Democrats.
Tim Storey, who monitors redistricting for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said Colorado legislators may be making history by drawing a new Congressional map just a year after the current one went into effect.
“In terms of a state voluntarily passing a new plan, I’m not aware of any in recent history,” he said.
But the map used in the 2002 Congressional elections was drawn by a federal court, after the Colorado House and Senate were unable to agree on a plan. What’s changed since then is control of the Legislature: Republicans maintained their solid majority in the House, and captured a one-seat edge in the Senate in the 2002 elections. Republican legislators argue that they have a perfect right to redraw the new map because the Legislature is entitled to do so after every decennial Census and wasn’t given the opportunity after the House-Senate deadlock.
The new plan that passed in the Senate and was expected to win final approval in the House on Wednesday night greatly improves Beauprez’s prospects for re-election. The suburban 7th district, which surrounds Denver on three sides, would go from a 33 percent to 33 percent split in party registration to a 37 percent to 29 percent advantage in GOP voter enrollment. That’s significant, because Beauprez won his seat by just 121 votes last November.
But squawking Democrats say the most egregious thing Republicans did in the 7th was reduce the Hispanic population from 19.6 percent to 14.3 percent of the total.
“The Republican Party’s disrespect for the Hispanic community was on full display,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.).
Democrats have spent the past several days calling on Beauprez to repudiate the proposed Republican map, but he has refused, saying that while he’s comfortable with the boundaries the way they are, the Legislature was in its rights to draw new lines.
“Regardless of what the state Legislature chooses to do, I will continue to serve the 7th district to the best of my ability,” Beauprez said in a statement.
The Legislature also added Republican voters to the swing 3rd district on Colorado’s Western Slope, which McInnis has represented since 1992. While McInnis has a secure hold on the district, it could be a tossup under its current configuration if it was to become an open seat. Under the Republican plan, the district would go from a 35 percent to 33 percent GOP advantage to a 36 percent to 32 percent edge.
Republicans would accomplish these gains in the 3rd and 7th districts by adding an insignificant number of Democrats in two heavily Republican districts — the 5th, held by Rep. Joel Hefley (R) and the 6th, held by Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) — and by adding Democrats to DeGette’s heavily Democratic Denver-based 1st district.
“This is a crass and naked admission by the national and Colorado GOP, directed straight from Washington, that it does not trust the voters of Colorado,” DeGette told The Denver Post.
The contours of Rep. Mark Udall’s (D) Boulder-based 2nd district would also change significantly, though Democratic enrollment would go up by 1 percent. Udall would lose Grand County, home to some of Rocky Mountain National Park, but would pick up Pitkin County, which includes Aspen and other vacation communities.
Udall joined DeGette at the state Capitol last weekend to lobby legislators and protest.
Beyond the Congressional politics, the Colorado redistricting plan could change the composition of the state Board of Regents. Some members of the board are elected by Congressional district.
Since the GOP gained control of both chambers in November, state and national political observers have expected the Legislature to redraw the Congressional maps. But legislative leaders waited until the final hours of the 2003 General Assembly session this week to introduce and push through the redistricting plan. The Senate passed its version of the bill without a public hearing, and the House hearing was perfunctory at best and was marked by legislators shouting at one another.
The Senate met Monday in a rare — and possibly illegal — closed session to discuss redistricting, and all 17 Democratic Senators walked out of the chamber while the measure was being voted on. Two top-ranking Senate staff members, both Republicans, later resigned in protest.
Democrats are likely to use the lack of public input as a basis for any lawsuit to block the redistricting plan, but Republicans argue that there were plenty of public hearings on redistricting in 2001 and 2002 before the House and Senate deadlocked.
House Democratic leaders in Washington have also written to Owens, urging him to reject the plan. Some Democrats say his national ambitions could be in jeopardy if he signs a proposal that is seen as depriving Hispanic voters of their influence in state Congressional elections.
Republicans privately told the Post on Wednesday that Rove, President Bush’s political right hand, has been in touch with them in recent days to discuss their redistricting strategy.
Meanwhile in Texas, another powerful Republican, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas), continued to ride herd this week on Lone Star State Republicans, as the GOP-controlled Legislature slowly but steadily moved a bill to redraw the lines crafted by a federal court in 2001.
The state House Redistricting Committee, where Republicans hold a strong majority, passed a bill sponsored by state Rep. Phil King (R) early Wednesday morning that would significantly alter Democrats’ 17-15 Member advantage in the state’s Congressional delegation. Under the proposed lines, Republicans would at minimum hold 20 seats to Democrats’ 12.
The plan is expected to pass the state House on Friday or Saturday, where Republicans carry an 88-62 seat advantage. The bill must pass the House by May 15; the legislative session ends June 2.
In the Senate, the bill faces significantly more opposition. Under the rules of the body, a two-thirds majority is needed to bring up any legislation; Republicans need two Senate Democrats to defect in order to even have a vote.
On Wednesday, state Senate Democratic leader Gonzalo Barrientes said he has the 11 votes necessary to block the bill from coming to the floor.
The newest battle over Congressional lines in Texas pits DeLay against his colleague, Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), and is the latest development in more than a decade of redistricting-related skirmishes between the two.
DeLay said his effort is really a correction of a 1991 redistricting plan designed to “protect white incumbents” like Frost, as well as Democratic Reps. Charlie Stenholm, Chet Edwards, Nick Lampson and Max Sandlin.
In that plan as well as the court-adopted map of 2001, Frost was able to claim victory by preserving the status quo in the Congressional delegation despite the state’s continued trend toward Republicans.
At a Capitol Hill news conference Wednesday, Frost and eight of his colleagues condemned the new map as a “vicious assault on minority voting strength and communities of interest in Texas.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who represents the Houston area and is one of two black Members from Texas, said Republicans’ claims of creating more minority districts amounted to a “fairy tale.”
Storey, the analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said he doubted that there would be much political fallout if these late redistricting campaigns succeed.
“How much public backlash can there be if you do strong-arm tactics on redistricting?” he said. “It’s pure inside baseball.”
Ben Pershing contributed to this report.