Democrats debunk spin around redistricting measure, saying the effort is decidedly not bipartisan


Democratic leaders are decrying the continued effort to push a statewide redistricting ballot measure that they say will break up minority voting blocks in Colorado.

Party brass are blasting a story in yesterday’s Denver Post that claims the initiative has bipartisan support. To the contrary, they say, the party isn’t backing the measure because its three Republican and three rogue Democratic sponsors aren’t including them in negotiations over its language.

“It’s backroom politics at its worst,” said state Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Westminster.

Initiative 55, as the measure is known, seeks to take the politics out of an inherently political process — the drawing of Colorado’s Congressional and legislative districts. The Congressional maps have been drafted by the General Assembly, with most of those efforts ending up in court for final resolution. State legislative districts are drawn by an independent commission that’s appointed by lawmakers and other state officials. Those results often end up in court, too.

The original language of Initiative 55 — submitted last month by former Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch and former Secretary of State Bernie Buescher, D-Grand Junction — triggered concerns that the measure would disempower voters of color, which the Voting Rights Act attempted to strengthen. 

Initiative 55 lists priorities to be considered when drawing maps, and in this order:

  • Creating mathematically-equal district population sizes
  • Complying with the 1965 Voting Rights Act
  • Keeping counties, cities or town boundaries within districts, whenever possible
  • Keeping districts compact
  • Keeping districts “fair and competitive” (although this is not defined)
  • Preserving “recognizable” communities of interest, to include ethnic, cultural, economic, trade area, geographic and demographic factors

Democrats say the measure’s original language conflicts with current state law. Passed by the General Assembly in 2010, the law uses the same factors but doesn’t set up a priority order. 

Critics said the first draft of the measure’s priorities were out of whack, especially by putting the clause “preserving ‘recognizable’ communities of interest, to include ethnic, cultural, economic, trade area, geographic and demographic factors” dead last. 

Democratic brass are trying to figure out whose support within the party the measure’s three Democratic sponsors — Buescher, former Denver mayoral candidate and School Board member James Mejia and former Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver — claim they have, because it isn’t the leadership.

Yesterday, Ulibarri, D-Westminster, convened a group of about 40 civil rights leaders to discuss Initiative 55 and the real damage he says the ballot initiative could cause.

Ulibarri told The Colorado Independent that the language of 55 isn’t the same as other redistricting efforts that have been passed in other states, and that the fine print of the measure intends to break up communities of color and fracture their political voices. He has raised his concerns with the ballot measure sponsors McNulty and Buescher, and asked for a chance to be at the table for discussions about the language. That hasn’t happened. Instead, Ulibarri is being told to submit concerns to Mejia.

“It’s the wrong way to engage the community,” Ulibarri said.

Mejia, who runs a consulting firm and has been the measure’s chief spokesman, is taking heat for misrepresenting the Democrats’ position on the effort by saying the party’s on board.

Rick Palacio, chair of the Colorado Democratic Party, said the only people who like the measure are “those who are being paid to like it.” Although he didn’t name names, the suggestion was that Mejia’s being paid to shill the redistricting plan. 

Mejia said no money has changed hands yet, because there isn’t any. However, once the time comes, the plan is to set up a campaign committee, and to have at least one Democratic company and one Republican company take on the task of moving the measure to the ballot. Mejia said he hopes his company will be chosen for the Democratic side.

As submitted, Palacio said, the ballot measure is fatally flawed. And, given the way the initiative was announced so suddenly in November without input from his party, Palacio said he’s doesn’t trust the process. What’s more, he’s not sure the Republican sponsors would ever agree on a compromise that Democrats would find palatable, fair and balanced.

“Mejia is entitled to his own opinions, but he doesn’t speak for the Colorado Democratic Party” on this issue, Palacio said.

“Mejia is not the voice of communities of color,” added state Rep. Angela Williams, D-Denver, who’s black. “We don’t feel the voice of the minority community has been heard.”

It’s not just communities of color who are angry about what they call backroom dealing.

Elena Nuñez of Colorado Common Cause, a non-profit that advocates for open and fair government, said today that her organization supports “truly independent redistricting,” but Initiative 55 doesn’t meet that standard. 

“This is the first time in the country we’ve seen language proposed that would actually put a ceiling on minority voting representation,” Nuñez said.

Rev. Patrick Demmer of the NAACP and Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance echoed Williams’ assertion that the process has fostered mistrust.

“We’re tired of people going behind closed doors and deciding these issues – and giving no voice to communities of color. They haven’t even had a conversation with the people it will impact,” he said.

Mejia told The Independent that the small group of sponsors working on the measure is trying to be inclusive. He said there will be meetings in the future at an unspecified date once people have an opportunity for more input on the measure’s language. Still, Mejia noted, almost everyone involved in the business of redistricting — both Democrats and Republicans — has found something in the initiative they don’t like.

The measure is being reworked to address some of those concerns, according to Buescher, one of the initiative’s three Democratic sponsors. 

Buescher told The Independent today that the working draft now reflects language on the factors included in a 2010 redistricting bill passed by the General Assembly. But whether that will fly with Republicans is another matter: Not a single GOP lawmaker voted for the bill during the 2010 session.

“We’re reaching out to a lot of different communities and want their input,” Buescher said. “Nothing is carved in stone. We’ve already made some changes to accommodate suggestions and will make more.”

Democrats and community groups say proponents of redistricting reform haven’t included them nor solicited their input. They’re skeptical that will change. 

Williams put it bluntly: “We don’t trust the process.”


Photo credit: Alyson Hurt, Creative Commons, Flickr.

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.


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