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Blue Dogs Enlarge Portfolio With Redistricting

The Democratic Blue Dog Coalition is expanding beyond its long-held policy niche of deficit spending and social tolerance and adding redistricting to its portfolio.

The 35-member Blue Dog group, which consists of moderate and conservative Democrats, recently agreed to take on redistricting as the first of what could be several additions to its short list of policy priorities. In recent years, the organization has been considering taking on new issues as the Democratic Party has already adopted its top item of fiscal discipline and deficit reduction.

On redistricting, the main goal is to enact a bill by one of the Blue Dogs’ longtime leaders, Rep. John Tanner (Tenn.), that calls for national standards creating independent commissions to redraw district lines just once every 10 years.

As part of their offensive on the topic, the Blue Dogs voted late last month to adopt the Tanner bill as one of their core issues. So far, 32 House Members have signed on to the measure, including 25 Blue Dogs and one Republican.

Rep. Jim Matheson (Utah), the Blue Dog chairman for administration, said no other issue is more fitting for the organization to take on, given the 2004 Texas reapportionment battle that took out several prominent Blue Dog members. Plus, he said, the Blue Dogs have long promoted policies that call for greater accountability and less partisanship in government.

“We’ve seen the effects of this personally — we’ve probably felt it more than anyone else,” Matheson said. “Why should politicians be drawing the maps? That’s not right.”

Matheson said the Blue Dogs — while best known for their budget discipline and focus on debt reduction — have taken up other major issues in the past, including overhauls of the welfare and bankruptcy systems. He said the decade-old group understands that it must continue to evolve, politically and on policy matters, to maintain relevance and effectiveness in the Democratic Party and in Congress.

“The Blue Dog members are the most conservative Democrats in the House,” he said. “It’s important for them to make sure their brand exists across an array of issues. It is important to stay dynamic and seek out opportunities to have an impact.”

Tanner said that while the group continues to mature with the political times, it also has a bigger goal of tempering Congressional partisanship and ensuring that moderate voices continue exist.

Congressional lines drawn by legislators across the country have made most districts so slanted to one political party or the other that centrist candidates have little chance of winning, he said.

“It gives us another means to promote the theory that in the people’s house, a vibrant middle is important,” Tanner said. “The Blue Dogs are what is left of the middle here.”

Rep. Dennis Cardoza (Calif.), the Blue Dog communications chairman, said that redistricting deserves to be the latest and newest policy area for the organization, given that so many of its members have already been affected, or could be, by redistricting efforts.

Cardoza, for instance, is keeping a close eye on the current redistricting fight in California — home to the largest contingent of the 35 Blue Dogs. There, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called for a special election in November that would allow voters to decide whether to empower a panel of retired judges to immediately redraw districts.

Cardoza said while Schwarzenegger’s idea to put redistricting in the hands of non-partisan officials has merit, he has concerns about the costs, political motivations and timing behind the effort. He said that California Blue Dogs, as well as others in the group, want to ensure any redistricting is done fairly and equitably across the country.

“We’ve been waiting for this,” Cardoza said of the Blue Dogs adopting redistricting as a core issue. “I feel very comfortable with it. I think a lot of Members do.”

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