Redistricting bomb blows into partisan pieces

(Image: Flickr/John Dalkin)

Democrats and Republicans traded barbs Monday after Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, declared an end to the Joint Select Committee on Redistricting by preparing to introduce a bill to create a Democratic map. In turn, Republicans said they too would introduce a map to compete with the Democratic version. The move ruptured the bipartisan roundtable formed to ensure a fair redistricting process, splintering it into partisan shrapnel.

“After hours and hours of testimony, and thousands of calls and emails, Democrats decided that they didn’t want to work with us.  Instead, they are taking their maps and running home,” co-chair of the Committee Rep. David Balmer, R-Centennial, said in a release Monday.

“Republicans will continue our efforts to draw a map for Colorado that is fair, with district lines adjusted to account for population shifts. Hopefully the House Democrat caucus will be more open to working with us to draw a fair map.”

Republicans expressed disappointment at the Democratic move, and stressed their maps respect the current district boundaries, respect communities of interest and ensure that Colorado rural communities retain a strong voice in selecting their Congressional representation.

Heath, however, had a different take on Democrats leaving the table. He said that despite the facade, Republican Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, had inserted himself into a conversation where he had not been invited. Heath said that because of what he saw as McNulty’s stranglehold on Republican members of the committee’s decision-making capabilities, Democrats were unable to negotiate.

“I have greatly appreciated working with my co-chair, Representative Balmer, throughout this process. He, along with me and the rest of the Democratic and Republican members, have truly wanted to develop a map that we could submit to the General Assembly for approval. Unfortunately, it is impossible to negotiate with the invisible man. It became clear during the meetings last week that no one on the Republican side was in charge. It is impossible to negotiate when one side does not have the authority to negotiate.”

Negotiations began to break down after Democrats said competitive districts were the focal point of their redistricting lines, a theme Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper says he supports but one Republicans said is not needed to bring about fair elections. They explained that despite Republicans outnumbering Democrats in 4 out of 7 districts on their maps, the state had seen Republican districts vote for Democrats in the past.

Democrats, however, said voter registration numbers were a factor in elections and said many people had expressed concern on both the Democratic and Republican side that their voices were not being heard. As a result they offered a map that allowed for only one district to remain safe for both Republicans and Democrats with all other districts essentially up for grabs. Democrats would have Denver and Republicans were safely in control of Colorado Springs.

Republicans contend that the General assembly should adhere to guidelines used by Colorado courts when drawing the lines. One of these guidelines includes ensuring that, when possible, district lines are left relatively the same. While these rules do not strictly apply to the Legislature’s drawing, they argued that when the maps are litigated, they may not pass judicial scrutiny. Democrats however, said it is important to ensure that no representative of the people has a safe seat.

While Heath’s move clearly was the explosion rupturing the agreement, the bomb’s fuse had been burning since well before Heath’s announcement.

Last week, when there was still hope that the Redistricting Committee could devise a bipartisan map, both Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker and Rep. Balmer told the Colorado Independent that in retrospect it had been a mistake to create separate partisan maps. They said that from the start both Democrats and Republicans should have been working on the same map.

Asked if he thought both sides should have started working on a single map instead, Scheffel answered very simply, “That is what we should have done.”

While it is possible the Democrats and Republicans could have come to an agreement had they shared maps earlier in the process, Heath said the error was not in process but in the lack of knowledge Republican members showed of McNulty maps and their lack of ability to negotiate on core issues.

While both sides have said they hope to see a bipartisan redistricting map agreed upon in the Legislature, it seems clear a new fuse has been lit on a bomb that could blow the issue clear of their hands and into those of the judiciary.

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