The Utah Legislature organized a whirlwind redistricting committee these past two weeks. The final approval by a special session is pending for next week. On the assumption that we’ll be facing a vote on Map L, let’s take a look at who won and lost so far.
Governor Huntsman (R-UT) wants to get back the fourth congressional seat Utah was cheated out of in 2001. A fourth congressional seat for Utah is a remote possibility in the lame duck session in D.C. next month. To have any chance at all to put this victory on his resumÃ©, Huntsman needs a new map that would appeal to Washington insiders from both parties.
Utah did prepare a four district map in 2001. That map was drawn in case the Bureau of the Census was frustrated in its under counting of missionaries or its illegal sampling of empty households in larger states. Either repair would have given Utah a fourth seat, but the courts declined to order the fixes. Instead the seat went to North Carolina.
That existing map, like our present three district map, was drawn to unseat Congressman Jim Matheson (D-UT2). Huntsman knows that the deal to give Utah a fourth seat needs bipartisan support to survive with Democrats favoring a congressman for Washington D.C. and Republicans favoring a new seat for Utah. But if the map tries to squeeze out Jim Matheson, Democrats won’t support the deal. So what Huntsman really wants out of this process is any map with a reliably safe district for Jim Matheson.
And the committee drew a safe Democratic district for Jim Matheson. Governor Huntsman gets what he wants.
Utah’s Democratic Party wants to avoid being gerrymandered into an even tinier minority in the legislature. Last time in 2001 Republicans squeezed eight Democrats together into districts where they would have to run against other Dems to be reelected. The few Democratic leaning districts they left were drawn larger than the Republican leaning districts to minimize the number of Democrats elected.
Democrats had little worry that the bad experience of 2001 would be repeated this month since the governor was pressing for a safe district for Jim Matheson. Even though Democrats won 43% of the vote for congress from Utahns in 2006, there is little chance any map that would allow a second Democrat to win a congressional seat would pass through the legislature or win support from the D.C. Republicans. So Democrats should have been using this experience as a platform to advocate reform of the redistricting process in advance of 2011.
Real reform of the process would involve prioritized, objective criteria to be applied by a bipartisan commission outside the legislature. That was the basis of the most successful redistricting reform in the nation now operating in Iowa. Unfortunately the Democrats focused on the bipartisan nature of the commission without focusing on the prioritized, objective criteria the commission would apply. Representative Roz McGee’s (D-SLC) proposed constitutional amendment suffers from the same problem; while it lists principles to apply, it lacks a mandate to use prioritized, objective criteria for drawing districts.
The problem with the way the system runs now is that the majority party draws districts for itself to eliminate the people’s ability to choose representatives from another party. The problem with a bipartisan commission without prioritized, objective criteria for how districts can be drawn is that insiders from both parties will carve up the state to preserve existing insiders’ power. With insiders now three quarters Republican that’s nearly as bad for the Democrats as the current process. The benefit from Iowa style districting is that Iowa has the most competitive elections in the United States and the strongest influence from the grassroots in legislative elections.
Democratic Party Chair Wayne Holland spoke to newspapers and sent press releases boosting a bipartisan commission and earned media coverage for the idea. Unfortunately Senator Curt Bramble (R-Utah County) repeatedly knocked the idea with the accurate criticism that bipartisan redistricting just changes which people get to do the partisan carving. I haven’t seen any coverage of Iowa style districting in local media outlets.
The Democratic Party needs publicity for the idea of reforming the redistricting process. The quality of Democrats’ publicity was mixed.
Democratic legislators wanted to be involved in the process instead of ignored. They also want to avoid making themselves targets in 2011.
They succeeded in getting listened to and having input on the final map. The committee record indicates a little push back by Representative David Litvack (D-SLC) against the Democratic Party message that the current partisan process is unfair. While it’s true that this one time partisans were constrained by Huntsman, it doesn’t pay to dilute the message that Republicans will be vicious again in 2011 if they can be. Litvack was one of the Democrats drawn out of his district in 2001 so he should know better than anyone.
In the end, some of the Democratic legislators’ concerns were addressed in the map.
Republican legislators wanted a district drawn for themselves to run in someday or one for an ally of theirs. The new fourth district takes in the homes of LaVar Christensen, Steve Urquhart, and John Swallow — all Republican legislators who recently run for national office. Unless Jim Matheson decides to run in the fourth district, some Republican legislator is likely to win if that district is created. Congressman Chris Cannon (R-UT3) was not drawn into a district that will make his perennial intraparty challenge easier.
Quite a lot of Republican legislators just wanted Jim Matheson drawn out of their districts so that the Matheson turnout machine wouldn’t be helping out their opponents every two years. With Matheson in a district that’s almost all represented by Democrats, they get their wish.
One district was drawn just for Republican legislators.
Hill Air Force Base workers and contractors almost won a big prize by accident.
Right now any congressman from the First district focuses on winning and keeping missions and jobs for Hill. Several proposed maps would have put South Ogden, South Weber, or other parts of the Hill community into another district, just to balance population numbers. The bonus for Hill and the state would be another focused advocate for Utah’s most important federal facility in congress.
Perhaps it would be an advocate who didn’t vote against job protections, benefits, and fair wages for Hill workers like current Representative Rob Bishop (R-UT1) does.
But the final committee map won’t include much of the Hill community in any district but the First. Hill AFB workers didn’t have a big win.
Rural Utahns make up 12% of the state according to the Bureau of the Census; Utahns argue that it’s a few percent more. The Utah Republican Party is dominated by suburban representatives who want to dilute rural strength by diluting their votes into all four possible districts. Republicans would like to dilute urban strength the same way, but that conflicts with Governor Huntsman’s desire to create a safe district for Jim Matheson. Democrats even proposed a map (Map G) that would let rural Utahns dominate one of the four districts.
It could have been worse because rural Utah was divided into only three and not four districts.
Incumbent Congressmen all saw their districts get safer. Chris Cannon (R-UT3) will see fewer of his frequent intraparty challengers. Congressman Rob Bishop’s (R-UT1) district gets more Republican. Jim Matheson (D-UT2) should run in the new fourth district to give us a chance to add a new Democrat in the second, but he might run in the second which is now much more Democratic. So the incumbents should be pleased.
Utah communities want to be kept together with like minded neighbors and not split. Except for Hill AFB workers mentioned above who wanted exactly the opposite.
Most Park City and western Summit County commenters wanted to be combined with Salt Lake County and split from North Summit and South Summit and they get their wish in the final proposal.
Carbon County voters are the strongest constituency for Rep. Matheson and they will be split from his district so they’re unhappy.
Senator Buttars (R-South Jordan) wanted South Jordan and West Jordan together and he got his wish.
Salt Lake City voters wanted to be reunited after the current plan split the City down the middle and they were.
In the end, some communities got what they wanted and others did not.
Last, as always, come the people. The people are best served by competitive districts. It was the intention of the committee to draw four districts that were all less competitive than the three we have now. Unless Matheson runs in the new fourth district, the people will lose the one competitive district we have.