Redistricting Not Yet on the Statehouse Agenda

Posted January 9, 2004 at 2:03pm

With most state legislatures set to reconvene in the next few weeks, experts do not anticipate the type of fights over re-redistricting that roiled Texas and Colorado in 2003.

“Right now, I think we’re somewhat in a holding pattern,” said Jeff Wice, a Democratic redistricting attorney based in Washington, D.C.

That’s because much of the action on the redistricting front in the months ahead is likely to be in the courts:

• The Supreme Court is scheduled to rule on a Pennsylvania redistricting case before its term ends in June; that ruling could have far-reaching, nationwide implications.

• Texas Democrats are mulling whether to appeal a ruling by a three-judge federal panel earlier this month upholding the Republican re-redistricting plan of 2003 that puts several Democratic House seats in jeopardy.

• Colorado Republicans are waiting for a federal panel to weigh in on their re-redistricting plan, which was struck down last month by the state Supreme Court. That case could wind up before the Supreme Court.

• And Georgia Republicans are hoping that a federal court provides relief in their challenge to a Democratic map that was used for the 2002 Congressional elections.

What’s more, both national political parties — publicly at least — appear to be discouraging new redistricting fights at the statehouse level.

“I don’t know that anybody’s seriously talking about it,” said Carl Forti, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Kori Bernards, his counterpart at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said national Democrats have always opposed the idea of retaliating against Republicans by re-redistricting in Democratic-controlled statehouses, even as the GOP was redrawing lines in Colorado and Texas.

“I haven’t heard any talk about changing that approach,” she said.

That doesn’t mean redistricting won’t rear its head in any number of legislatures this year anyway.

“There are a lot of things going on that keep redistricting on the agenda,” said Wice, the Democratic attorney.

In Georgia, depending on the outcome of the just-completed trial, Republicans are poised to reintroduce legislation to change the boundaries of several House districts to make them more favorable to the GOP. Similar bills stalled last year in a Legislature that is closely divided between Democrats and Republicans, and it is difficult to see that anything has changed to break the logjam this year.

Following the 2002 elections, political control changed hands in five state governments where new Congressional district maps had been drawn by the courts rather than the legislatures. This emboldened Republicans in Texas and Colorado to change the House district lines in bitter cases that wound up in court — and enabled South Carolina Republicans to change state legislative district boundaries in a less-celebrated case.

But despite several discussions, re-redistricting did not take place in the two states where the Democrats had taken control, New Mexico and Oklahoma.

However, a state lawmaker in Oklahoma, Rep. Michael Mass (D), is expected to introduce a Congressional redistricting bill when the Legislature convenes in February, sources said. It is not clear what the bill would do, and Mass did not return calls last week to his legislative and business offices.

Kym Koch Thompson, a spokeswoman for Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry (D), said her boss is not sponsoring or promoting a remap bill in the upcoming legislative session because he finds re-redistricting “too derisive.” She would not speculate on what he would do if redistricting legislation landed on his desk.

In New Mexico, the issue appears to be dead, according to state Senate President Pro Tem Richard Romero (D), who championed the idea of re-redistricting last year.

“I think the governor’s pretty much put an end to it,” he said, referring to Gov. Bill Richardson (D), a former House Democratic leader who has resisted calls to redraw the Congressional lines.

Romero is hardly a disinterested party: He is challenging Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) for a second time this year, and Democrats are desperate to recapture the swing Albuquerque-based seat after decades of GOP control there. But Romero said he is confident of his chances even if the contours of the district aren’t tweaked.

“I wouldn’t be doing it, man, if I didn’t think I could win,” he said.

Beyond this year’s legislative sessions, redistricting could be an issue in elections for state offices this November, when 11 governorships and hundreds of legislative seats are up for grabs. Even then, it is unclear whether control of any statehouses will change hands — and if so, whether the resurgent political party will attempt to change Congressional boundaries just five years before the next census.

Four of the states holding gubernatorial elections in 2004 — Delaware, Montana, North Dakota and Vermont — have only one House seat apiece, so control of the statehouse is immaterial. New Hampshire, North Carolina, Utah and West Virginia are unlikely to see major changes in their partisan makeup.

Still, a few states bear watching: Indiana, where control of the Legislature is currently split and a close gubernatorial election is likely; Missouri, with a Democratic governor, a narrow GOP legislative majority and a tight gubernatorial election in the offing; and Washington state, where control of the Legislature is split though Democrats are favored to retain the governorship.

Looking past the 2004 elections and its aftermath, the decade is almost half over, with the next round of post-census battles to come.

“2010,” said Tim Storey, the redistricting expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures, “is not that far off, I suppose.”