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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Was Utah's redistricting process fair and open?

Published: Sunday, Oct. 23 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

during a special session of the Utah State Legislature about congressional redistricting maps Monday, Oct. 17, 2011, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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The entire state, no doubt, is grateful that the painful redistricting process is over, done for another 10 years. This activity is a grueling feature of democracy — certainly not for the squeamish. As always, plenty of questions await our biased and frivolous observations:

Overall, was the 2011 redistricting process open, fair and will it serve Utahns well? What are the ramifications in the 2012 elections?

Pignanelli: "Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage." — H. L. Mencken Redistricting for the State House and Senate was a bipartisan activity, and legislative leaders are to be complimented.

Office-holders expend resources and effort to be elected, and they deserve (and the constituents they serve are entitled) to have incumbency a consideration when redrawing boundaries. This factor was utilized for state legislative districts and for Rep. Rob Bishop and Rep. Jason Chaffetz.

Yet, Rep. Jim Matheson's current constituents were not extended such courtesy. Removing the east bench Republican districts — which Matheson served well for a decade — and substituting them for southern Davis County was a capricious act. After numerous inquiries to my Republican friends, I still await a credible (and non-power politics) rationale. This is a terrible blemish on an otherwise ecumenical process.

Apparently some Republicans are grumbling about Speaker Rebecca Lockhart's performance during the redistricting session. This is nonsense. Lockhart faced the worst circumstances in generations: many ambitious members of her caucus seeking congressional office, including the lawmaker she replaced, tea party activists, the specter of HB477 and national Republicans creating mischief behind the scenes. This was a difficult situation she handled with grace and strength.

The general election is over a year away, and redistricting is unlikely to be an issue for voters.

Webb: Given the inherent messy nature of lawmaking, amplified in redistricting, the Legislature did very well. Somehow, despite the wails of doom, humankind will survive.

Was the very vocal and aggressive response from Democratic Party officials effective? Will they sue, and could a lawsuit succeed?

Webb: Democrats in Utah, being few in number and even fewer in elective office, are often ignored, so congressional redistricting gave them a stellar opportunity to squeal like stuck pigs with the news media amplifying every shriek. I enjoyed watching the Academy Award-winning performance of my downtown neighbor, Democratic Chair Jim Dabakis, a showman and accomplished huckster above all else. Interestingly, Democrats and their allies demanded legislators to do for Democrats exactly what they condemned them for doing for Republicans — draw partisan, gerrymandered districts.

Would Democrats be wailing if a highly-partisan, safe Democratic district had been carved out just for Jim Matheson? Forget about all the high-minded rhetoric about balanced districts, open processes and transparency. Democrats wanted a gerrymandered Democratic district. Republicans wanted Republican districts. Republicans had the votes.

Dabakis won't win a lawsuit, but it will give him a few more months of headlines, so why not?

Pignanelli: Good party leaders must be partisans, not statesmen. Thus Dabakis is doing his job by keeping the issue in the media. The minority party is facing a terrible scenario in 2012: the automatic loss of seats from redistricting, an unpopular president at the top of the ticket and the potential of Mitt Romney as the GOP nominee. The Republicans are likely to do very well in 2012 and they should exercise a little more patience with the minority party's attempts to squeeze some short-term gain from this. Any lawsuit faces difficulty.

Will, and should, Matheson seek statewide office or seek re-election to the House?

Pignanelli: Matheson is popular with most Utahns — who respect his independent and thoughtful manner — and would be a strong contender for any office. Although Matheson will not have the benefit of all east Salt Lake County, south Davis County often elects moderate Republicans to the Legislature — a dynamic that may attract him to seek reelection to the 2nd District.

Webb: Matheson should run in the new 2nd District because it has the same Republican/Democratic mix as his old district, and it doesn't have Utah County. Repeat: IT DOESN'T HAVE UTAH COUNTY. Matheson can do OK most anywhere but Utah County, the state's second largest county. He can't win statewide because Utah County will defeat him. Utah County is where good Democratic candidates go to die. Signs along the border say, "Democrats: Enter Herein and Political Death Quickly Ensues."

Matheson's new district certainly does have a lot of new voters to him. But because Utah comprises just one media market, Matheson is well-known across the state and his approval rating is similar inside and outside of his current district. The 2012 political climate is going to be tough for Matheson and all Democrats no matter what the district. Still, Matheson has a reasonable shot in the new District 2. But not statewide.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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