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Where Would Utah’s 4th District Go?

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) wants the Beehive State to have another seat in the House and he swears he is not trying to do so at the expense of the delegation’s lone Democrat, Rep. Jim Matheson.

But the chairman of the Utah Democratic Party questioned Bishop’s motives and doubted the GOP’s willingness to do the right thing.

Utah missed gaining a fourth seat during reapportionment following the 2000 decennial Census by just about 80 people.

Last year Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) thought he had the perfect solution to two problems — temporarily bump up the House to 437 members, giving one seat to predominately Republican Utah and the other to Democratic Washington, D.C.

Washingtonians have long complained about meriting only a nonvoting delegate in the House and have adopted the slogan “Taxation without Representation” as their own.

The measure failed to move last year, so Davis and Bishop have reintroduced it in the 109th Congress.

“If anyone other than Tom Davis was the sponsor I’d probably give it no chance whatsoever, but I would never count Tom Davis out on anything,” Bishop said, acknowledging the bill faces long odds.

Bishop says most Utah residents and lawmakers, who came within a Supreme Court decision of getting an extra seat in 2002, are behind efforts to win the state more leverage in Washington.

“It’s something we thought we should have had already,” Bishop said. “There’s very little opposition in Utah.”

The legislation should be seen as politically neutral since most likely the new Utah seat would be held by a Republican and the District would likely elect its Delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, Bishop said.

As for District residents, this might be their best chance at getting a vote, he said.

“This is something that we could sell to other parts of the country,” Bishop said. “Full statehood for D.C. flat out would not sell.”

Norton’s office says she will continue to sponsor her own bill, which would give the District two Senators as well, but noted that she has worked with Davis all along and would be willing to get behind anything that has a chance of advancing D.C. voting rights.

Matheson has advocated for Utah to get a fourth seat, despite not knowing exactly what would happen.

Bishop acknowledged that it would be tough to draw Matheson a “safe” seat given Utah’s demographics.

“It would be impossible to draw a totally Democratic district for him [but] I don’t know how you could make it any worse than it is now” for him, Bishop said, noting Matheson’s sprawling 2nd district seat is already predominately Republican.

Bishop would leave the map-drawing to the state Legislature but he admitted that the Republican-controlled statehouse would probably carve up Matheson’s district if it could.

“It may be in the back of your mind but it’s not practical,” Bishop said.

And that is exactly why Utah Democratic Party Chairman Donald Dunn is not too wild about the proposal.

“In concept saying Utah deserves to have more voice power in Washington, that is very important, but not if the majority party is going to manipulate things or gerrymander them to hurt Utah,” he said.

Dunn said that if the last redistricting effort is any precedent, Republicans would definitely try to hurt Matheson.

“I think they made every attempt to weaken the district Jim Matheson had [in 2001] to make it very, very difficult — near to impossible — for him to win. Their attempts to gerrymander him out didn’t work.”

After Matheson won the 2nd district in 2000, the Republican-controlled Legislature did carve out his most Democratic areas and drew in more Republican ones. His district went from having supported President Bush by 57 percent to 67 percent in 2000.

Matheson has won narrow victories since.

Spencer Jenkins, executive director of the Utah Republican Party, said Republicans would not resort to gerrymandering, mainly because they would not need to.

“The Republican Party is not going to try to gerrymander a seat out of it,” he said, adding that the 4th district would likely be represented by a Republican anyway because of the state’s political leaning.

The state Legislature hastily drew up a map with four Congressional districts in 2001 during its challenge of the Census results — North Carolina ultimately got an extra seat instead of Utah.

Bishop said it would need to be modified to be workable but it created a new district by drawing nine populous Salt Lake County communities out of the districts held by Matheson and Rep. Chris Cannon (R).

Bishop said he would prefer that the state Legislature start anew but he would want lawmakers to follow the pattern they established with the current districts.

“The Legislature tried to combine urban and rural elements in all three districts and that has had a big impact on us working all together,” Bishop said. Keeping that would be “the first criteria.”

“All four [Representatives] should have a voice in Salt Lake County and all should have rural concerns,” he continued.

Bishop would like to see Davis and Weaver counties be the hub for one district, while Utah County could make up another and Salt Lake County could be divided in two with the fourth encompassing mainly rural areas.

For his part, Jenkins said he would rather see the urban areas consolidated into one seat based in Salt Lake County and have the remaining three seats be more rural in nature.

Of course, the talk is just speculation for now.

Neither Cannon nor Matheson could be reached for comment for this story. But Cannon, who was initially behind the proposal, has said more recently that too much time has passed and that Utah should now just wait until 2012.

“Why would we fool around with a seat now when we are going to pick one up, and possibly two, after the next Census anyway?” he told the Salt Lake Tribune last year.

Cannon seemed to be echoing a Republican sentiment that permanently giving D.C. a seat now in exchange for a likely Republican seat in the short term is not smart politics.

Davis’ proposal would have the House’s membership reverting back to 435 after the next census with D.C. earning a permanent seat — shortchanging a state as a result.