Redistricting effort stalled; Democrats may proceed on their own

The Colorado Statesman

A map outlining Colorado’s seven Congressional Districts will be introduced next week by the Democrats who sat on the Joint Select Committee on Redistricting, according to one of the committee’s co-chairs, Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder.

Heath told The Colorado Statesman Friday the committee did not get a letter from either Senate or House leadership that would have extended their work past an April 21 deadline and that a bill would be forthcoming from Democrats. Thursday evening, well after the General Assembly had adjourned for a three-day weekend, Heath sent out a report that he said fulfilled the obligation of the committee to report back to the General Assembly by its deadline.

In the Thursday statement, Heath brought up the points that have formed the basis of the Democrats’ maps and indicated Democrats would not back down on their most important principle: drawing maps with competitive districts. “A consistent message was heard,” Heath wrote. “Every vote should count, district lines should be fair and competitive and districts should not create ‘congressmen for life,’” comments heard most often in the Denver, Colorado Springs and Douglas County town hall meetings.

“…many Coloradans testified to the impact of being perpetually in the minority in districts that are ‘safe’ for one party,” Heath wrote, which he said discouraged participation in the election process as well as in voting. Heath noted that the committee agreed on several principles, including competitiveness, but Republicans had in fact objected strongly to the idea of drawing competitive districts. “The Democratic members of the committee urge adoption of a competitive map to keep Colorado’s delegation dynamic and responsive to their constituents,” Heath wrote in his conclusion. “Competition is the heart of our democratic process. It gives credibility to the principle of ‘one person one vote,’” he wrote.

Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, told The Statesman Friday that he found the Democrats’ decision “unfortunate and disappointing” and that he would visit with “our folks” on Monday. “That the Democrats have walked away from the bipartisan redistricting process, makes it more difficult for us to draw a map that covers all of Colorado, but we’ll continue to push,” McNulty said. “If the Democrats introduce their map that splits the Western Slope, disregards the Eastern Plains and draws districts for [a possible congressional bid for Longmont Democrat and Senate President] Brandon Shaffer, it’s a non-starter,” he said.

“We have an obligation to the people of Colorado to draw a map,” said committee co-chair, state Rep. David Balmer, R-Centennial. “Republicans want a bipartisan and fair map that ensures every voter has a voice, including rural Colorado. We can do this. It is my hope that the Senate Democrats will work with us to achieve this goal.”

“I have an ‘R’ behind my name, but it stands more for ‘rural’ than Republican,” said Rep. Don Coram of Montrose. “I’m especially disappointed that Rep. Vigil and Sen. Schwartz have not stood-up to their party to protect rural Colorado.”

The bipartisan committee spent seven hours this week discussing the maps drawn by Democrats and Republicans, but had little bipartisan work to show for it at Wednesday’s conclusion.

The committee agreed on one thing: to ask the Legislative Council staff to draw up the beginnings of a congressional map that showed the counties upon which they agreed. That resulted in a map with 29 counties, primarily in Congressional districts 3 and 4, with the other 35 counties in dispute. The “blank slate” came from a suggestion from Balmer that the committee start over with a new map and find their areas of common ground.

McNulty told reporters Thursday that he wanted the committee to take a few more days to work on the map, but if it continued to be about “Democrats’ political ambition,” he had no interest in continuing it.

“I’m still hopeful we can arrive at a map,” McNulty said. “We’ll see where the process goes from here.” McNulty didn’t mention that he had a hand in drawing three of the five maps submitted by the Republican members of the committee, or that most of the Republican committee members, when repeatedly asked, couldn’t explain what his maps did.

The 11 maps drawn by the two sides were presented April 15, to howls of outrage and dueling press releases from both parties. When the committee met next, on April 19, they spent more than 90 minutes reviewing the details of the Democrats’ maps. On Wednesday, it was the Republicans’ turn, but three of the five Republican members refused to reciprocate when asked to explain their maps. Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, explained some of the detail in one of the McNulty maps but admitted during the hearing that he didn’t draw it. Balmer, who drew two maps, spent more than an hour explaining in great detail how he came up with them.

The Republicans, in drawing their maps, started out with the current map and tweaked it to adjust for population growth and to create safe Republican and Democratic seats. Republicans, such as Rep. BJ Nikkel, R-Loveland, pointed to criteria that said the maps were supposed to preserve communities of interest and maintain political subdivisions, such as cities and counties; minimize disruption of prior district lines, draw districts for the Western Slope and Eastern Plains, and that Denver should remain whole. Much of that criteria, however, is contained in statutes that are intended to inform judicial instructions when the courts are left with the task of drawing the maps. Nikkel said this week it was reasonable that the General Assembly also take those criteria into account.

Let’s start over — Bipartisan Map #1

The suggestion came like a thunderbolt in the committee’s Tuesday meeting. Balmer threw out the idea of the group returning to its bipartisan roots and getting away from the party politics that had polarized them in the previous four days. And the idea was to start all over again with a blank slate, in effect tossing the six Democratic and five Republican maps that were presented the previous Friday. The only ones to draw the maps would be the 10 committee members…and with luck, no one else.

The idea was revolutionary, Brophy said, one that caught him off guard as well as the Democrats. “It was a ‘fog of war’ idea that threw the other side off its talking points,” he told The Statesman Wednesday, and he complimented Balmer for showing leadership.

When the committee was announced last December, McNulty said the intention was to take “the heat and politics” out of drawing congressional boundaries. During February and March, the committee traveled around the state, gathering input on how the maps should be drawn, and with Democrats and Republicans sitting next to each other. The “kumbaya” spirit indeed.

That all seemed to end once the meetings were over. The two sides withdrew to their respective corners and drew Democratic maps and Republican maps. The aura of partisanship became immediately apparent when the maps were introduced: Republicans sat together as a bloc, as did the Democrats. And the maps couldn’t have been more different.

In their six maps, Democrats dramatically shifted the appearance of the state’s congressional boundaries, splitting the Western Slope between two districts and the Eastern Plains into two districts. Their changes put Boulder in with Grand Junction and Adams County in with Cortez, for example. Democrats said their guiding principle was creating competitive districts, keeping cities and rural counties whole, and drawing lines along transportation corridors that so that travel within the district would be easier for the congressional representatives.

The Republicans were more subtle, using the basic shape of the 2000 map but tweaking it to ensure at least four safe Republican seats and two safe Democratic seats. Colorado’s current congressional make-up is four Republicans and three Democrats.

Balmer admitted Wednesday he was taking something of a political risk in asking the committee to start over, explaining that he hadn’t sought McNulty’s permission or even warned him that he intended to make that request.

“I’m excited about the number of Republicans and Democrats who see it as a good idea, a fresh start,” Balmer told The Statesman. “I’m excited we can redirect the conversation in the direction of building a map from scratch. I’m hopeful we will work on this as a committee, with people who have their own specialties.” Balmer cited Rep. Daniel Pabon, D-Denver, whom he said knows more about Denver than anyone, and that he and Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, have good working knowledge of Aurora.

One problem with the map software is that it can start with the existing map, Balmer explained. “You end up with a footprint very similar to the existing map with whatever flaws the existing map has.” Drawing a new map will require compromise from both sides, but “I think we can do it,” and Balmer said he intended to call the new map “Bipartisan Map #1.”

“We did have a bipartisan mind-set during the road show,” Balmer said. “We couldn’t have been more cooperative. It’s time for the ten of us to see if we can finish our mission. If we fail, that is what everyone expects of us.”

As to outside influence, including from the House and Senate leadership, Balmer said “the great equalizer will be the people of Colorado who are watching us.”

After the meeting, Heath wasn’t happy about the idea of starting over. “We’ve spent hundreds if not thousands of hours to get to this point,” he told The Statesman. “All I’m asking is, where are [the Republicans] at this point? Why would you [toss out a map] when you’ve spent all that time working on it?” Heath said he was fine with starting with the points on which the two sides agree, through comparing the Dems’ city integrity map with the Republican maps. “We’re trying to get there. I just want to know where their starting point is,” he said.

None of that prior work is lost, Balmer told The Statesman. “We will use all the best ideas from all of the maps drawn to do a new one, but it’s important to start with a blank map so that in front of everyone, as we build congressional districts, the people of Colorado will be able to watch us do it, watch us make the hard decisions,” that will result in a map drawn by the people of Colorado. “I would like to see lots more influence from outside the building, but from the ‘normal’ people of Colorado rather than the hard-core political strategists from the two parties,” Balmer said.

Friday, Balmer was uncharacteristically silent when asked about Heath’s proposal to introduce a Democrat-only sponsored bill next week, referring all requests for comment to McNulty.

Heath’s insistence of asking about the Republican maps may have exposed just how much the Republicans knew about some of their maps. The Denver Post reported earlier this month that McNulty had met with Republican operatives, some who had a hand in drawing the 2001 map that failed to pass the General Assembly, during the week prior to the April 15 introduction of the maps.

The committee attempted to start over, as Balmer suggested, on Wednesday, but Balmer’s request to start with just one county, El Paso County, and to put it whole into the 5th Congressional District, met with the same objections from Democrats who were still waiting to hear how the Republican maps were drawn, and holding on to competitiveness principle. Nikkel pointed out Tuesday that competitiveness as a criterion for drawing a map is not in statute, but Carroll responded that it instead comes out of case law.

On Tuesday, Carroll refuted Republican claims that the maps were drawn to the advantage of a possible congressional run by Shaffer. She noted that in the hearings in the 4th Congressional District, the committee was repeatedly told that Longmont should not be in the same district as Boulder and should remain in the 4th District. All of the Democrats’ maps did that, as did one of Balmer’s maps and one of McNulty’s maps.

As the Tuesday conversation drew more heated, Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker, pleaded with the committee to resist the assumptions made by the public that the committee could not reconcile over one map. But “it would have been better if we had agreed on an initial starting point,” he said.

Balmer at one point asked the committee members to engage in a team-building exercise, one in which each member would say something positive about the other side’s maps, and that got several responses from the Democrats but none from the Republicans.

Abandoning the committee and the process may do exactly what Brophy predicted Tuesday evening. He noted in a Tweet that Democrats control the Senate and the governor’s mansion, and that any map that comes from the courts would likely favor Democrats, as it did in 2002.

Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, also raised the possibility of a court drawing the map. In a letter to the committee, Kopp said the group was convened by the House and Senate leadership to “take a new approach…focused on drawing fair boundary lines and avoiding the partisan squabbles that have marked this process in past years.”

Admitting failure and turning the process over to the courts would “be an abrogation of our constitutional duties. The citizens of Colorado expect more of us than that,” Kopp wrote, and asked the committee to “return to the original high purposes of the effort and make an honest and determined effort over the next 36 hours to reach a bipartisan agreement in open meetings with full public transparency, not behind closed doors.”