Colorado redistricting campaign changes course on appointing power and gains a game-changing backer

Kent Thiry

A group seeking to change the way Colorado draws its political boundaries has made major changes to its plan while gaining an influential backer with a recent record of passing big ballot measures.

The plan, spearheaded by a group called Fair Districts Colorado, is among several others that have popped up around the country with a stated goal of trying to take partisanship out of the legislative and congressional map-making process, which happens after each 10-year census. The next census is in 2020.

In a state where redistricting fights have left bruises in both major political parties, Fair District’s plan came under fire the moment it rolled out in early September. If its proposals pass legal muster the group could begin gathering enough signatures from voters around the state to put their plans on the 2018 November ballot. The campaign could be the first real test of a new law passed by voters last year that makes it harder to place measures on statewide ballots. 

But Fair Districts got a big boost this week when Kent Thiry, the wealthy Denver CEO of the DaVita kidney dialysis company, signed on as the campaign’s chairman. Thiry helped fund and pass a successful ballot measure last year that opened up party primaries to unaffiliated voters.

“America is drowning in polarization, and gerrymandering is a first and primary cause,” Thiry said in a statement about the process of drawing political boundaries that benefit one party over another.

Related: A group says it wants to end partisan redistricting in Colorado. Would its plan really do that?

Redistricting is a hot issue now.

A book by editor David Daley called “Ratfucked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy” detailed a Republican strategy, funded by conservative causes, to dominate the redistricting process and turn more legislatures red.

In Michigan, a group called Voters not Politicians proposed a ballot measure it says would create a more independent redistricting commission. Progressives and union groups in Missouri are working on a ballot measure they say would make drawing political lines less partisan. A group called Fair Districts = Fair Elections launched in Ohio, and Fair Districts PA is on the ground in Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering a Wisconsin case that could determine whether partisan gerrymandering is constitutional.

Part of the Fair Districts plan in Colorado is to create a 12-member commission to approve district lines for the legislature. A similar commission would do the same for Congress. Each body would include four Democrats, four Republicans, and four people not affiliated with a major political party. Currently, Colorado uses a panel of 11 members who are appointed by the governor, the state Supreme Court chief justice, and legislative leaders. That means members of one party or another can dominate the board. Currently, the legislature draws congressional maps, not an independent commission.

Initially, the Fair Districts campaign wanted to have Colorado’s two largest political parties choose the eight partisan members of the new commission. Critics, like Denver attorney Mark Grueskin who has represented Democrats in redistricting battles, worried doing so would actually increase partisanship. Political parties are accountable to party insiders while elected officials are accountable to voters, he said.

In its re-filed proposals, Fair Districts now puts the appointment of eight commissioners back into the hands of public officials— specifically the House and Senate majority and minority leaders, whose party affiliations could change with the political winds.

Other changes include:

Having the commission’s four non-major-party members chosen by the secretary of state in a random lottery from a pool of 20 applicants recommended by a panel of three retired judges of different political parties, who must be unanimous in their recommendations. (The previous proposal allowed the eight partisan commissioners to chose them. A spokesman for Thiry said he was behind this change.)

More screening by the retired judges about the political affiliations and activity of applicants. The purpose is for the judges to recommend the most politically neutral applicants, says Bill Hobbs, a lawyer who worked on the plan and whose name appears on the proposal as a sponsor. They will also take into account racial, gender and geographic diversity. Gender diversity is a new change. Anyone who wants to be a commissioner also must fill out an application. (The previous proposal said they didn’t have to apply.)

Explicitly requiring nonpartisan legislative staff members who would draw the maps to explain how they came up with their first map and how it complies with the criteria they took into account. Commissioners are still not allowed to talk to staff members about the maps they are drawing in private, Hobbs says.

Members of the public can now provide input into the map-making process at any time after the first map comes out, not just in public meetings.

Requiring two of the non-major-party commissioners be among a supermajority of eight who can approve a map. If commissioners can’t come to a decision after four maps for the legislature have been drawn, the fourth map goes to the State Supreme Court for review. For congressional maps, it’s three. If the congressional commission can’t come to an agreement, the third still goes to a state district court that recommends a map for the state Supreme Court to review. The high court would eventually review all maps in the end. Also new: once a supermajority approves a map, staff wouldn’t have to draw other versions.

The changes further reduce “the involvement of partisans in the appointment process,” and is meant to reflect how Fair Districts is responding to input, says Kathleen Curry, a former Democratic lawmaker who became unaffiliated and is also a sponsor of the redistricting plan.

The tweaks, however, aren’t likely to win over critics.

“I’ve got a real hard time saying you’re no longer a wolf in sheep’s clothing because you’re wearing a sweater rather than a coat of wool,” says Grueskin the election lawyer. “It’s still underneath got the same fundamental problems, which is they rail against political parties and they use political parties in order to populate their commission. So either it’s a problem that needs to be fixed or it’s not a problem.”

Hobbs says having partisan involvement is a reality of living in a two-party system. The government finances party primaries, he says. Parties are a part of public life and are major stakeholders in the political process.

“I’d love in theory to have commissions that were totally independent but I just don’t know that it would work in practice,” he says.

Ellen Dumm, a consultant for progressive causes, says she plans a conference call this week among several groups that are keeping an eye on the proposal as it changes. She is working with a coalition of groups that opposed the first draft of the Fair Districts proposal, unveiled in September. Those groups include Common Cause of Colorado, the ACLU of Colorado, Together We Will Colorado, Colorado People’s Alliance, Servicios De La Raza, COLOR, Mi Familia Vota, NAACP Colorado Montana Wyoming State Area Conference, One Colorado, NEWSED CDC, former Speaker of the House Ruben Valdez, Denver City Council Member Debbie Ortega, and former redistricting panel members Mario Carrera and Rosemary Rodriguez, among others.

Dumm is skeptical of the campaign’s motives because of those involved.

She points to the campaign’s ties to Republican operatives like Frank McNulty, Allen Philp, and Josh Penry who led a similar redistricting campaign last year. An item in ColoradoPolitics described Philp as a “veteran Republican utility player — who among his many callings has been regional political director for the Republican National Committee and for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign; deputy chief of staff to former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, and policy director to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush,” who is a pitchman for Fair Districts.

Last year’s effort was blocked by the state Supreme Court on a technicality and was partially funded by groups and people with conservative bona fides. Dumm suspects the campaign could be a way for Republicans to tint Colorado more red after Republicans fumed at maps drawn by Democrats nearly a decade ago during the last round of redistricting.

Over the years in Colorado, Democrats have accused Republicans of drawing maps in a way to get more Republicans elected, and Republicans have accused Democrats of doing the same. The Associated Press this summer found Democrats in Colorado benefit from gerrymandering.

The Fair Districts campaign was hit by early criticism because of some of the since-changed details in it— and because some critics contend there wasn’t enough outreach to minority communities. “We really took to heart lessons from 2016,” says Aaron Cohen, who is also working on the campaign. Those lessons were that the group had to engage minority communities and Colorado’s key reform organizations at the outset, which he says they did and continue to do.

But Common Cause of Colorado, an organization that follows redistricting, has concerns about the plan on that front, says director Elena Nuñez.

“For redistricting reform to be successful, there has to be public trust in the process,” she says. “The leaders in drafting the measures, and the policy which is developed and put forward to voters, should reflect a broad range of viewpoints and be representative of the full diversity of the state.”

McNulty, a former Republican House majority leader in Colorado who is working on the Fair Districts plan, says the principles of the plan have “very broad support” across members of a coalition supporting the campaign.  

Bill Hobbs called it “refreshing” to be working with such a bipartisan group, something, he said, “you just don’t see in these politically polarized days.”  

The campaign counts as supporters former Republican Gov. Bill Owens and former Democratic Gov. Dick Lamm and two former secretaries of state from different parties. Two former Republican Senate majority leaders back the plan, as do two former GOP House majority leaders. All in all 13 Republicans support the effort along with six Democrats. Political scientists John Straayer and Bob Loevy are also on board.

However, two high-profile Latino Democrats, former Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia and former state Sen. Abel Tapia, pulled their support for the plan earlier this month. Garcia said the campaign was “more controversial and potentially partisan” than he realized.

But Thiry’s endorsement and chairmanship of Fair Districts Colorado is no doubt a game changer.

Once an unaffiliated voter, Thiry registered as a Republican and considered a run for governor this year, but decided against it. In recent weeks he has been quietly rallying support for Fair Districts and could provide the campaign piles of cash.

Last year, Thiry funded a successful statewide ballot measure, called Prop 108, that allows unaffiliated voters to participate in party primaries. In a statement provided to The Colorado Independent, he indicated his support for this latest measure is along the same lines as his backing of Prop 108.

“Just as voters approved sweeping, good government reforms in 2016 that created open primaries over the objections of party bosses, we believe these initiatives will earn the approval of voters. And I for one can’t wait for the debate to begin,” Thiry said.

The day Thiry announced his public support, Colorado’s largest progressive organization, ProgressNow, took a swipe at the campaign on social media.

The group’s director, Ian Silverii, however, says it hasn’t yet taken an official position, but like Dumm he is skeptical of the conservatives involved in the effort. He believes Colorado is plenty competitive already. Both chambers of the legislature have gone back and forth over the last decade, he says, and are now split. And Candidates and campaigns matter at least as much as how a district looks, he says, adding, “I just think this might be a solution in search of a problem.”

While Fair Districts seeks to rack up more endorsements and an opposition campaign reviews the latest changes, the Fair Districts plan has stirred some drama among the League of Women Voters of Colorado, a group with beau coup credibility on voting issues in the state.

League president Nancy Crow says the organization does not back the effort, but vice president Larson says it does. Larson’s name originally appeared with Curry’s as a designated representative. Her name does not appear on the latest proposal; Hobbs took her place.

Leadership at the League of Women Voters in Colorado split over redistricting campaign

Crow says the board of the League of Women Voters would likely take a vote on whether to support the effort sometime in the near future.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story transposed the party affiliation for former Govs. Owes and Lamm. 

Photo courtesy of Kent Thiry. Change machine photo by tracyshaun for Creative Commons on Flickr.