Reapportionment Commission wrangles over districts

Special to The Colorado Statesman

Colorado voters lined up for nearly three hours on Monday to testify about the state reapportionment process, asking the commission charged with redrawing legislative district lines to focus less on competitive districts, and more on keeping communities of interest together.

Republicans and Democrats on the state’s Reapportionment Commission wrangled over house districts, especially in Fort Collins, proposing maps that aim to protect their political base while attempting to adhere to court decisions that require lawmakers to keep counties intact.

The most significant vote taken on Monday by the 11-member bipartisan commission led to the adoption of a proposal by Democrats that would expand the two-district Fort Collins area to include two additional house districts.

The commission approved the proposal by a vote of 6-5, with all Republican members opposing it. Unaffiliated Chairman Mario Carrera, of Parker joined Democrats in supporting it.

The plan calls for two additional house districts for Fort Collins, spreading out to Republican-held House Districts 49 and 51, currently represented by B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland, and Rep. Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, respectively.

Windsor would also be divided into three districts, including House District 48, held by Rep. Glenn Vaad, R-Mead, in addition to House Districts 49 and 51 Democrats believe they have drafted a fair, competitive map, while Republicans call the proposal “sloppy” and “unconstitutional,” noting municipal splits that Republicans believe to be “unnecessary.”

“That was just really sloppy work by whoever drew the plan, but I think that’s clearly unconstitutional,” said Republican Commissioner Steve Tool, a former state representative of Fort Collins who now lives in Windsor. “Those are municipal splits that are totally unnecessary and not needed.”

Front Range asks to maintain communities of interest

The commission on Monday also took testimony from Denver-area and Front Range residents who want to avoid the controversy facing Fort Collins by keeping communities of interest together, especially those including the Hispanic population in the area. They are expected to offer their proposals on Monday when the reapportionment commission next meets.

“Our communities of interest within the Latino community need more representation, not less,” said Amber Tafoya, executive director of the Denver-based Latina Initiative. “We are often fractionalized in this process; we are often split up… we are asking you not to do that,” she told commission members.

Democrats are also concerned about maintaining a Hispanic community of interest in Weld County, specifically House District 50, which encompasses Greeley, formerly represented by Rep. Jim Riesberg before he was appointed commissioner of insurance last month. The Democratic-leaning Hispanic vote around Greeley has become crucial to Democrats in helping keep the district competitive.

Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, a member of the Reapportionment Commission, spoke of the importance of HD 50 to the Democratic Party.

“HD 50 is the only one that can be competitive for Democrats out of Weld County,” she said. “[HD] 50 can remain politically viable for a Democrat in one house district, otherwise it looks like it goes to one-party control.”

But Republican Commissioner Rob Witwer, a former Representative from Genesee, said Weld County has a longtime voting tradition that could become more competitive.

“There’s a history of racial bloc voting in northern Weld County,” he said. “It is possible to draw a Hispanic majority district.”

Boulder also has become a focus of the reapportionment debate, as the commission has proposed placing house districts in Grand County with Clear Creek and Gilpin counties, while joining the county with Boulder or Jefferson counties. Repositioning Grand County with Larimer County has also been discussed, but the commission does not appear to be moving forward with that proposal, according to reapportionment commission staff.

Putting Grand County with Boulder County, however, is one of the more contentious issues of the discussion, as rural Grand County voters do not believe they align well with urban Boulder County voters, and vice versa.

“We have nothing geographically or culturally in common with the people of the Front Range,” testified Robert McVay, a resident of Hot Sulphur Springs in Grand County and chairman of the Grand County Democratic Party.

Some in Boulder, however, believe parts of the county, especially in the northwest, do have common interests with rural Grand County.

“The citizens of Grand County feel that they’d be poorly represented if they were coupled either with Larimer County or Boulder County… but that’s not a complete picture,” said Dan Gould, who lives in western Boulder County. “Many people are not familiar with all of Boulder County… Half of the geography of Boulder County is mountainous. It has a lot of similarities with some of the issues and some of the concerns of Grand County.”

Commissioner Gayle Berry, a former Republican representative from Grand Junction, challenged notions that gerrymandering is taking place by placing conservative Grand County with liberal Boulder County, suggesting that voters are more interested in performance than party affiliation.

“Voters will vote for a candidate, not the party which makes it a competitive district, which is something that should be important to us as well,” said Berry.

“We Republicans never get Republican majority, and I don’t care, that’s not the point of this exercise…” she continued later in the hearing.

Longmont residents on Monday raised concerns of their own over how district lines were drawn after the 2000 Census, and are asking the commission to redraw district lines so that Longmont goes back to where it was a decade ago. The commission at the time divided Longmont into two separate house districts and placed many of the rural neighborhoods in Boulder County. Longmont residents say they have little in common with Boulder.

“Our vehicles don’t even fit in their parking lots,” quipped Peg Cage, president of Longmont Republican Women.

Longmont resident Vuka Mitchell went as far as to say that the city was “screwed” by the commission following the 2000 Census. Mitchell believes Boulder is favored over Longmont when it comes to representation, and says the city would benefit from its own support.

“House District 11 looks like a crescent wrench, with Boulder at the base of the handle and Longmont at the top, getting screwed by the one at the base,” charged Mitchell.

Front Range voters are also asking the commission to keep the Broomfield area as intact as possible. But if the commission does split up the Front Range, residents hope that Broomfield can be kept with Boulder County rather than with rural Weld County.

“I’m concerned that redrawing the lines of Broomfield is going to change the fabric of our community,” said Broomfield resident Francesca Subramanian.

Reapportionment Commission staff also anticipate contention over El Paso County. Jerry Barry, staff director for the Reapportionment Commission, believes Republicans will raise concerns over predominantly Republican Colorado Springs being split more than necessary. That debate could spill over into discussions over how to redraw senate legislative district lines, he said.

Reapportionment and the fight for control of the Legislature

Republicans currently control the state House by one seat, while Democrats have a 5-person majority in the Senate. In years past, senate district lines have been the more contentious boundaries to redraw, say Reapportionment Commission advisers. But this year — as party leaders look ahead to a 2012 fight for control of the Legislature — house district lines have become the more volatile issue.

The Reapportionment Commission is tasked every 10 years, following the Census, with redrawing legislative district lines in order to conform to changing populations. The goal is to keep districts uniform in size to reflect “one person, one vote.” House districts will ideally have a population of 77,372, and Senate districts will ideally have a population of 143,691 residents.

The governor appoints three members to the Reapportionment Commission; party leaders appoint four members; and the chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court appoints four members to the commission.

The Reapportionment Commission is expected to release maps in August and then send the drafts for review to the Colorado Supreme Court in October. The new maps will take effect for the 2012 election cycle.
Both Republicans and Democrats have filed lawsuits over the congressional redistricting issue.

The Reapportionment Commission would like to avoid the fierce battles that took place during the congressional redistricting process a few months ago. In an attempt to defuse some of the tensions surrounding reapportionment, the commission takes testimony from the public before drafting specific maps on which to vote. Staff director Barry likens it to the old “chicken or the egg” question.

“Which do you do first?” asked Barry. “Do you first ask for testimony, or do you throw a map on the wall and ask for this?”