Redistricting trial underway in Denver

The Colorado Statesman

A trial in Denver District Court to determine Colorado’s new congressional boundaries got underway on Tuesday with little fanfare. Opening statements, as expected, were made for either making changes based on shifting populations and interests, or maintaining the status quo and causing “minimum disruption” to the state’s current boundaries.

Attorneys representing proponents of maps drawn by Democrats, Republicans, Hispanic interests, and those specifically affecting Pueblo, Douglas County and Aurora made their opening statements and questioned witnesses, attempting to resolve a once every 10-year dispute over congressional redistricting.

Much of the ensuing witness testimony over the course of the week focused on whether Douglas County is an agricultural community with rural interests, or truly a Denver metro suburb; whether pine beetle infestation in the mountains can be considered an interest needing common congressional representation; and whether educational communities of interest exist and are shifting.

Congressional boundaries are redrawn every 10 years after the Census to reflect changes in population. Both parties sued the state this spring, asking the court to draw congressional boundaries after lawmakers failed to agree on a map. Despite lawmakers calling for a bipartisan redistricting process, even establishing a special bipartisan committee to work on a compromise, partisan gridlock stalled the process again this year. Democrats and Republicans in August introduced separate maps as part of the lawsuit determining redistricting.

The Republican proposal — dubbed “Minimum Disruption.1” — makes few changes and leaves the state’s seven congressional districts pretty much the way they have been since a judge drew the lines in response to a similar lawsuit in 2001. Republicans would like to shift southeastern Colorado’s Baca County from the 4th Congressional District into the 3rd Congressional District.

Democrats, however, have proposed radical changes that have Republicans concerned about losing strongholds in typically conservative parts of the state. Perhaps most alarming to Republicans is that Democrats would shift nearly all of Republican-leaning Larimer County from the 4th Congressional District — held by U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma — into the Democratic-leaning 2nd Congressional District, including liberal Boulder County — currently represented by U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder. Democrats have also proposed moving conservative Douglas County into the 4th CD, including Greeley and most of the Eastern Plains. Suburban metro Denver districts, including Douglas County and the 6th and 7th Congressional Districts, would also shift over to the western and eastern parts of the metro area, making the districts move competitive under the Democrats’ proposal.

Under that scenario, U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, would likely face a spirited challenge if Denver District Court Chief Judge Robert Hyatt approves the Democrats’ proposal. Members of Colorado’s congressional delegation are expected to testify this week at the redistricting trial. Coffman has already said that he is prepared to face any challenger, mentioning his military background and always willing to put up a fight.

State Rep. Joe Miklosi, D-Denver, has declared his candidacy against Coffman in the “soon-to-be redrawn” 6th CD and says he is going to run in that district no matter how the lines are redrawn.

“I’m running in Colorado’s 6th Congressional District to restore jobs, economic growth and the American Dream, so I am in this race to the finish,” Miklosi said this week. I want to be the thoughtful, respectful, hardworking representative the people of this community deserve. I am not concerned with the partisan makeup of the district, I’m concerned about the future of the families in this community.”

In his opening statement on behalf of the Democrats, well-known election attorney Mark Grueskin from the Heizer Paul Grueskin law firm made the argument for change, suggesting that the demographics of Colorado have shifted dramatically in the last decade.

“Today is not 10 years ago,” Grueskin argued. “We will prove to you that the evidence, both testimonial and in the exhibits, that this is 2011 and things have changed.”

He pointed out that funding for education is being slashed, with costs skyrocketing for families and students. A failing educational system means businesses will not relocate or establish in Colorado, he suggested. Grueskin said a unified educational lobby would help congressional representatives secure education funding for the entire state.

In addition, Grueskin said, education would help establish a community of interest between Larimer and Boulder counties, noting similar college communities that exist between the University of Colorado in Boulder and Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

The Democrats’ attorney also spoke of the importance of competiveness, though courts have been hesitant to seriously consider competitiveness in deciding redistricting and reapportionment outcomes.

“The argument that competitiveness has no role in Colorado, frankly is one that doesn’t reflect the political reality of today,” Grueskin said.

“We ask you, your honor, to look beyond the lines,” Grueskin concluded.

Republican attorney Richard Westfall, who has served as general counsel for the Colorado Republican Party, told the court that Democrats are attempting to make serious changes to the state’s population, shifting 1.5 million Coloradans into new districts.

While Westfall stopped short of saying that Republicans are attempting to preserve the status quo, he made an argument very close to it.

“Yes, your honor, we are talking about preserving the existing population and congressional districts to the fullest extent possible,” he said.

Westfall belittled an argument by Democrats that Larimer County needs to be joined with Boulder County in order to establish a unified lobby for pine beetle infestation funding.

“We have an issue with pine beetles, where somehow or another Larimer needs to be joined with the 2nd CD so that we can have adequate funding for pine beetles?” Westfall mockingly asked.

Hispanic interests also represented

Neither the Democratic or Republican proposals alter the competitiveness in the 3rd Congressional District, including Pueblo County and the Western Slope; so Hispanic interests have introduced maps of their own. Attorneys representing the Colorado Latino Forum and the Colorado Hispanic Bar Association argued for aligning heavily Hispanic populated Pueblo and the San Luis Valley with Hispanic communities of interest along the Eastern Plains and Greeley. Attorneys believe San Luis Valley and Pueblo are more like the Eastern Plains than the Western Slope.

“This map is not minimum disruption or the status quo because the demographics of this state have not remained the status quo,” said Regina Rodriguez, their lead attorney who stressed that Latino interests are forgotten in Colorado.

“Hispanics in this state continue to be disproportionately impacted by the economy in terms of jobs, health care and immigration, and yet Hispanics continue to be disproportionately underrepresented and marginalized by those who are supposed to help them advance and to protect their interests,” she said.

Also represented at the trial was an attorney for Pueblo District Attorney and former lawmaker Bill Thiebaut, who has introduced two maps of his own, though his proposals are much less controversial. Thiebaut proposes leaving Pueblo and the San Luis Valley in the 3rd CD with the Western Slope. His maps would simply place Otero County in with the 4th CD and aim to make the Republican-leaning 4th CD more competitive.

The City of Aurora also came with their own attorney, Hubert Faber, who argued that Aurora should have its own congressional district, unlike how it is now where the county is split into two districts — the 6th and 7th.

“Aurora and Aurora’s unique and singular characteristics as a powerful and influential municipal subdivision compels this court… that when the process is complete, the City of Aurora will be included within a single district for now and in the future,” Faber stated.

But a significant amount of statements and testimony given during the first week of the trial revolved around Douglas County and whether to keep it much the same, rather than shift it over to the eastern and western parts of Denver metro, which would essentially leave Coffman’s seat up for grabs.

Douglas County Commissioner Jill Repella and Kenneth Butler, a Washington D.C. lobbyist hired by Douglas County, testified that Douglas County should remain the same, pointing out that the county has developed a strong working relationship with Coffman, which has assisted the county in securing federal funding.

“Congressman Coffman has been very cooperative because he wants to make sure that every potential dollar that is available for Douglas County and for his district comes back to the district,” said Butler.

The congressional boundary shift for Douglas County could mean that Gardner in the 4th CD is their new representative.

“Congressman Gardner, I’m sure he feels no less about the 4th District, but his experience down here, as you know, is extremely limited,” said Butler. “It would have to be an educational process.”

Grueskin attempted to use Repella’s own words and documents provided to the Douglas County Board of Commissioners by suggesting that the county has significant rural interests. If attorneys can prove that Douglas County has rural interests, then they can make the argument that moving it to the rural Eastern Plains makes sense. Grueskin grilled Repella, a Republican, about documents and conversations between the board in which it discussed rural interests across the county.

Following her testimony, Repella seemed unshaken by the intense examination by Democratic attorneys.
“I was trying not to look at the clock,” she joked. “They’re focusing on two areas in our county that represent a very small percentage of what happens in our county.”

Former Congressman Bob Beauprez, a Republican who was the first to represent the newly created 7th CD in 2007 before Congressman Ed Perlmutter, D-Golden was elected, said following a portion of the trial that he was stunned Democrats made the argument for such radical shifts.

“We have seven districts that require relatively minimal change to the existing maps, and they’re saying all that doesn’t matter anymore, we want to throw it in the blender and stir it up,” said Beauprez. “I don’t get that.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com