Two former Democratic politicians, former Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia and ex-lawmaker Abel Tapia, have pulled their names as supporters of a campaign that seeks to change the way Colorado draws its political boundaries.
The campaign, called Fair Districts Colorado, comes as multiple other states look to reform legislative and congressional redistricting and reapportionment and as the U.S. Supreme Court hears a case about whether partisan gerrymandering violates the Constitution
In Colorado, the movement is trying to get three measures on the Nov. 2018 statewide ballot to create a new, more independent commission that would draw legislative and congressional district lines, among other changes.
Garcia told The Colorado Independent it became clear to him that the Fair Districts campaign and its efforts are “more controversial and potentially partisan” than he realized. As president of the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education, Garcia said he has taken pains to avoid public involvement in partisan issues.
The campaign, announced in early September and spearheaded by the League of Women Voters of Colorado, came under immediate scrutiny, Critics say it is little more than a rebranding of an effort that failed to make the ballot last year, and that it did not do enough meaningful outreach to communities of color. The group, anticipating the backlash, says its members did more outreach this time than last.
But critics of the group pointed to a lack of minority support on the Fair Districts webpage of endorsers, which lists more than two dozen supporters. None are black, but four listed on the page were Latino, including Garcia, Tapia, GOP Rep. Clarice Navarro-Ratzlaff and former lawmaker Larry Trujillo.
That was until Garcia’s and Tapia’s names disappeared.
“Given my current role working on behalf of 15 different states, I thought it best to avoid aligning myself publicly on one side or another of this issue,” Garcia said.
Tapia, a Latino former lawmaker from Pueblo who once ran the state lottery, didn’t respond to voice messages about why his name similarly disappeared from the Fair Districts endorsements list. But Toni Larson of the League of Women Voters of Colorado says Tapia is working for a gubernatorial candidate and told the group he felt supporting the redistricting campaign was a conflict.
Navarro-Ratzlaff, a Pueblo Republican, says she reviewed a layout of the plan, though not in detail, and believes it to be fair and bipartisan. Trujillo, a former GOP majority leader in the Colorado House and Senate, did not return two voice messages.
Fair Districts Colorado says over the summer its members sent the redistricting proposal to all 100 lawmakers— twice— which included members of the Latino and black caucuses. The group says it reached out to180 community leaders and organizations in Colorado, including 25 from minority communities, but just didn’t get much feedback.
Larson of the League of Women Voters of Colorado says the campaign is responding to questions and comments.
“We haven’t closed the door on getting input from various groups,” she says. She also says the group is reviewing feedback from a recent poll. She said she didn’t know who paid to commission it and indicated more details about what the poll asked and found would be forthcoming.
Some behind the Fair Districts campaign are the same political operatives who were involved in a similar effort last year that collapsed when the Colorado Supreme Court blocked it on a technicality. Before that, though, the effort faced vocal accusations that if it passed it would undercut the state’s large Latino vote. Some critics in Colorado’s minority communities also said they didn’t have enough input into the plan.
This year the group, under a new name, counts as a partner the League of Women Voters of Colorado, which is seen as a credible voice on voting issues.
At the heart of the Fair Districts proposal is a change to Colorado’s Constitution to create a 12-member commission that approves legislative district maps. The commissioners must be spread across the state and couldn’t be lawmakers or candidates. And instead of the governor and chief justice choosing its members, the state’s two largest political parties would choose eight of the 12 members. Four non-major-party members would be recommended by a panel of retired judges of differing political parties and appointed by the Secretary of State. The judges would have at least one public meeting before determining 20 potential members who the party-affiliated commissioners would then whittle down to four in a reverse-lottery process.
Larson, who handled outreach for the campaign, says Fair Districts is considering minor changes to the proposals in light of recent pushback, including tweaking how the non-major-party commission members are screened and chosen, but she said the details aren’t final.
“It’s not going to appease everybody,” she says, “but [it] will help out with some of the people who have made some comments.”