Democratic legislators concerned by House reapportionment maps

Many Democrats are standing behind concerns raised by former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb last week after Webb said that Republican members of the Colorado Reapportionment Commission were playing it fast and loose with constitutional requirements when redrawing the state legislative boundaries.

Pointing to what he saw as the Republican misuse of competitive districts, minority apportionment, and the Hobbs decision only in the cases where partisan gains could be made, Webb said violence had been done to communities. Republican members of the commission said the fears are mere myth but that ultimately it would be the Colorado Supreme Court that decides whether the plan is acceptable or not.

“It is evident that the most partisan Republicans apply the criteria when it is politically convenient. I would ask that they back away from that stance,” Webb said in a statement urging the Commission to apply all constitutional criteria for reapportionment as it sees fit in its final vote. He said that should be done in a responsible way.

Reapportionment has so far proved less than kind to House Democrats who under the preliminary district map could see formerly safe Democratic incumbents losing their districts including those of HD 3, HD 11, HD 26, and 50 as Republican voter registration increased dramatically in those districts under the newly drawn boundaries.

Webb said the Commission’s splitting of Gunnison County, the Denver-metro area, and Grand Junction by Republican maps showed little concern for the populations that live there but instead appeared to be moves to create a Republican super majority in the House.

Still, Democrats faced with a possible Republican super majority in a state that is roughly split three ways between Republican, Democrats and unaffiliated voters, say they are less concerned about their ability to win a race and more concerned about the fracturing of community voice.

The 11 person Colorado Reapportionment Commission, made up of five Democrats, five Republicans and an unaffiliated commissioner, is charged with redrawing state House and Senate districts every ten years so that each district has roughly the same number of people. In creating the districts commissioners are required to keep districts as compact as possible, keep districts whole within counties unless crossing county lines is necessary to create equal populations between districts, ensure that as few cities need to be split between districts as possible, and to ensure “communities of interest, including ethnic, cultural, economic, trade area, geographic, and demographic factors, shall be preserved within a single district wherever possible.”

In the Denver metro area, Webb said that Aurora in Adams and Arapahoe counties had faced the greatest disservice by the commission. He explained the minority communities of African Americans had asked to be split amongst Arapahoe County districts in order to maximize minority influence but were ultimately denied.

“Ignoring the reality of the minority population on the ground was consistent in the adopted House maps in the metro area,” Webb said.

Webb further questioned the massive shifting of districts in the city of Aurora and asked why a city of roughly 325,000 people should contain only one whole district. Webb said that one of the rationales for splitting Aurora’s current districts, many considered Democratic strongholds, was to artificially create competitive districts by drastically increasing Republican voters.

“The Republicans on the commission are pushing for competitive districts only in Democratic strongholds like Aurora … appealing to a sense of fairness. The result of creating competitive districts is a move away from constitutional criteria and the creation of Republican strongholds where none existed before,” Webb said.

While Democratic incumbents overwhelmingly said they had not looked at the voter registration counts, they said their communities were being greatly affected.

“No doubt, my district will expand toward the east and south to accommodate the new residents there,” Rep. Su Ryden, D-Aurora told the Colorado Independent. “However, I am concerned about the way the districts in Aurora have been drawn.  I support a map that will reflect Aurora’s growth over time, and that will respect our longtime communities which are very important to the people of Aurora.”

While Ryden stands to see her safe seat in District 36 become competitive as Republican voter counts rise from 24.4 percent to 45.61 percent, her position was more reserved than other Democratic legislators. They pointed out that if the new districts are created, many of Aurora’s residents will be faced with completely new representation, while historical communities of interest are sliced apart — changes that are supposed to be avoided when possible during redistricting.

“What remains is that most people in Aurora will wake up represented by completely different people than who they actually voted for,” Sen. Morgan Carrol, D-Aurora told the Aurora Sentinel.

Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Greenwood Village, also criticized the Aurora districts.

Though Kagan will soon represent a community with a 5 percent registered Republican lead over Democrats after District 3 is moved south due to Denver’s losing a House seat, he said he was content with the lines drawn for his district. However, he said it was clear that voters in Aurora were “treated shoddily” by the commission.

Farther away from Aurora, both Reps. Deb Gardner, D-Longmont and Roger Wilson, D-Glenwood Springs, said their districts had been drawn out of step with their constituencies’ interests as well.

Wilson, who represents Gunnison County and HD 61, said Gunnison County should not be split. However, he expressed that if it was to be split the lines should be along topographic and transportation routes not along census blocs as it is currently drawn. He explained that Crested Butte would become isolated during the winter from the rest of the District and that many of the towns that consider themselves part of the same community due to transportation corridors would be negatively affected by the split as it is currently drawn.

“It would make better sense if you could set up a topography which I think has more to do with compactness in districts. Compactness makes more sense when you look at transportation routes in mountain topography versus physical distance. It makes more sense to the people who live there and think of themselves as a unit.”

The voter registration numbers showed that in 2010, Republican registration in District 61, which encompasses Gunnison County, was 25.8 percent compared to 31.1 percent of the population that registered as Democrats and the 42.2 of unaffiliated voters. The district’s registration advantage would slim under the new district population where 32.07 percent of voters would be registered as Democrats and 29.83 percent registered as Republicans. Unaffiliated voters would continue to make up the plurality of the district with 36.99 percent.

Webb said a Democratic map had had the same number of count splits but had not isolated representatives from portions of their districts. He said he could “only surmise that the map was crafted for partisan advantage instead of out of respect for the community that lives and votes in Gunnison County.”

Rep. Deb Gardner, like Wilson, said she had not looked at the registration numbers. However, she said she had always felt that removing Boulder from District 11 made sense, but that giving the heart of Longmont to Lafayette and Louisville failed to pass constitutional muster.

“The preliminary map cuts out the heart of Longmont, where we shop downtown, gather for events, our library, our civic center, our future FasTracks station and puts it in House District 12,” Gardner said. “This map puts the minimum number of people from Longmont in a house district that will be dominated by the citizens of Lafayette and Louisville.  This effectively disenfranchises Longmont citizens and is clearly a contradiction to the court’s opinion in 2002. Longmont should be divided between HD 11 and 12 in equal proportions.”

House District 11 would swing from having  37.3 percent of the voters registered as Democrats compared to 25.9 percent Republicans to a near even split between Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters.

Commissioner Mario Nicolais, a lawyer working with the Hackstaff law-firm who has served on numerous Republican campaigns, was singled out by Webb for using Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs’ 2002 majority opinion to try and manipulate the maps for partisan gain.

The decision found that counties should remain whole except in extreme cases when a district needs more population.

Nicolais, however, told the Colorado Independent that he disagreed with assertions that he was acting in a partisan fashion and stated the Hobbs’ decision was indeed one that would be the standard by which any reapportionment map would have to be judged before becoming the new political landscape. He argued that while Democrats complained about the House map, Republicans were complaining about the Senate map.

“It is my opinion…that the [approved preliminary] Senate map wouldn’t meet the constitutional criteria,” Nicolais said.

He said that the Senate map brought forward by Democrats failed to give Arapahoe County three whole districts and said Democrats themselves should be viewed as politically manipulating the board.

Webb countered that public testimony had moved the Democratic maps.

Nicolais also pointed to SD 19 where he saw partisan moves.

“Senate District 19 extends over into Adams and grabs portions of very heavily concentrated Democratic districts from Adams County. So rather than make a competitive seat, it makes it Democrat leaning. I asked in three public communications last week for someone to please explain why that was done and not a single map sponsor answered me,” Nicolais said. “To be fair, I realized that my own map didn’t pass the criteria and I couldn’t have supported my own version. So I went back and redrew it so that Jefferson County had three full seats.”

Webb said the Democratic map had fewer city splits with the same number of county splits making it preferable.

Despite their disagreements, Nicolais said he planned on working with Webb to address his issues surrounding minority representation.

“I know that he has some very strong beliefs on minority populations and I’m glad to address those. I know he made some references about creating a super majority; I think that that is an inaccurate representation but he is entitled to his beliefs,” Nicolais said.

Commissioner Matt Jones told the Colorado Independent that there was a fiction out there that the commission had not found consensus. He disagreed, and pointed to the votes on the Senate map as largely having bipartisan support in their passage and further noted a number of House maps had received similar support.

“There is a fiction out there that we haven’t found consensus,” Jones said. “Republicans moved the Western Slope Senate map. They moved and voted for the staff map. They said they haven’t gotten a single map. Well, they moved the map.”

Jones said that the preliminary map was designed to create public feedback and was in no way final and likely would see changes.

The preliminary map is now scheduled for hearings across the state to take public testimony.