An effort to change how congressional districts are drawn in Colorado has raised accusations from Democrats that Republicans are trying to disempower voters of color under the pretense of a bipartisan-supported measure.
For weeks, Democratic leaders have been calling the bluff on a purportedly bipartisan group pushing to change how congressional and legislative maps are drawn, saying the effort is a Republican scheme to strip minority voting blocs of their power.
Now, one of the few Democrats backing the redistricting effort, Initiative 55, may bail if the proposed measure does not address his party’s concerns.
Initiative 55 supporters say they seek common ground with voting rights activists and black and Latino groups who have blasted the effort and walked away from the negotiating table — which they were not initially invited to.
The reform measure was filed in November. It would ask voters to put the work of congressional and legislative map-drawing into the hands of a bipartisan commission. Currently, the legislature is responsible for mapping federal Congressional districts. The maps for state House and Senate seats are drawn by a bipartisan commission appointed by lawmakers, the governor and the state Supreme Court.
Under Initiative 55, the bipartisan group would redraw maps according to a prioritized list of principles:
- Districts need equal populations.
- Mapping must comply with the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
- Mapping must maintain county and city boundaries as much as possible within a district.
- Districts shouldn’t be spread out over large geographic areas.
- Districts should be competitive between Republican and Democrat candidates.
- The committee should recognize the importance of “communities of interest,” including “ethnic, cultural, economic trade area, geographic and demographic factors.”
It’s that last priority that has voting rights watchdogs and communities of color upset. Former Mayor Wellington Webb told The Colorado Independent in November that putting the communities of interest factor dead-last in the list of priorities marks an effort “to destroy the Latino vote in Colorado.”
Initiative leaders are still hoping to find a way to satisfy those concerns, according to former Secretary of State Bernie Buescher, a Democrat who is helping head the effort along with former Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch.
Democratic brass, voting rights advocates and black and Latino leaders have been pushing Buescher and the measure’s other two top Democratic sponsors — James Mejia and Mark Ferrandino — to stop supporting an effort they say is designed to disempower voters of color.
Ferrandino, the former Speaker of the House from Denver, told The Independent Friday that he’s hopeful a compromise can still be reached among all parties. But if that doesn’t happen, he may want out.
“I will have to spend some time to see if I can continue to support the effort,” he said.
Even though the initiative could lose one of of its three key Democratic backers, supporters continue to forge ahead. The measure now has an official name, or two of them: “End Gerrymandering Now,” or as it’s listed in a Monday filing with the Secretary of State, “No More Gerrymandering, Inc.”
Along with the official names come signs that the campaign now has a law firm and a political consulting firm working on its behalf.
The law firm is Ireland, Stapleton, Pryor and Pascoe, whose stable of attorneys includes Buescher. In other words, the former Democratic Secretary of State and state representative has a professional stake in pushing the measure forward.
Mejia, a former Denver mayoral candidate, has said he hopes his consulting firm will snag business from the measure.
Ferrandino, who now works as chief financial officer for Denver Public Schools, has nothing to gain financially from his participation in the redistricting effort.
Republicans are heading up communications efforts through EIS Solutions, which in Colorado is led by former Senate Minority Leader and Republican Josh Penry, who has also been involved in the early efforts on Initiative 55.
Earlier this week, End Gerrymandering Now sent out a news release about President Obama’s State of the Union call to end gerrymandering. The news release came from Rich Coolidge, who served as communications chief for Buescher at the Secretary of State’s office. Republican Coolidge also worked for now-U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman of Aurora, when Coffman was Secretary of State, as well as for Scott Gessler and for the first few months into the term of current Secretary of State Wayne Williams.
Coolidge this week complimented President Barack Obama for a statement made during the State of the Union Address. Obama said the time had come to “end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters and not the other way around. Let a bipartisan group do it.”
Coolidge noted the remark received loud applause from both sides of the aisle. “This is one directive from the President that voters across the country can embrace,” he said.
“Instead of another contentious redistricting bloodsport that exacerbates such rancor, let’s heed the President’s warning and do right by our voters by enacting transparent, bipartisan redistricting reform,” Coolidge added.
The “bloodsport” Coolidge refers to are the partisan battles that have characterized almost every congressional map-drawing in the past thirty-plus years. The last two times the legislature attempted to draw maps, in 2003 and 2011, the courts had to take over and finish the job, because Republicans and Democrats wouldn’t compromise.
Buescher and Coolidge both told The Independent Friday that the effort continues to be volunteer-driven. No one has been paid for their work, Buescher said. He also said that while his law firm is handling the legal work, and eventually will be paid for it, his efforts will be entirely volunteer.
“As we move forward, obviously we will build a campaign team, complete with a fundraising component,” Coolidge told The Independent in an email. “We’re not there yet, though.”