Drawing boundaries: How much influence will public have on redistricting process?

Published: Saturday, Aug. 6 2011 7:00 p.m. MDT

"That's basically done. I think what you're seeing is pretty much what we want," Waddoups said of the Senate map. He said GOP senators have spent "the last two months' caucuses looking at maps." Their caucus meetings are closed to the public.

The Senate leader said the 29 district boundaries come "really close" to taking into account concerns raised during the committee's public hearings, such as separating some southern Utah communities.

Under the proposal, Democrats stand to lose two of the seven seats they now hold, said Senate Minority Caucus Manger Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake, a member of the committee.

The proposal puts Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero of Salt Lake and Senate Minority Assistant Whip Pat Jones of Holladay, in the same district, he said. And it moves Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, into the same district as Sen. Dan Liljenquist, R-Bountiful.

McAdams said his understanding is that discussions with the GOP majority about the map are still ongoing.

"We've agreed to talk," he said. "We realize that Democratic districts have not grown as fast as some Republican districts."

House Democrats are in a similar situation, thanks to the same shift in population growth away from the party's Salt Lake stronghold — and their same superminority status. At least one longtime Democratic seat in the city, House District 30, is likely to disappear.

"Democrats have more to lose," a member of the committee, House Minority Assistant Whip Brian King, D-Salt Lake, said. "We can't prevent bad things from happening."

The committee's House chairman, Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, just laughed when asked if the new House districts were close to being finalized by the committee.

He said there are issues remaining in both the urban and rural areas of the state, not just in the Salt Lake area. For example, he said, two GOP incumbents could end up in the same Utah County district.

"I didn't know how personal sometimes it would get," Sumsion said of heading the committee. "It's been an interesting process. There are just a lot of self-interests."

The committee is scheduled to meet Aug. 19 to review the redistricting plans submitted by the public, and again on Aug. 22 to work on school board and Senate boundaries.

Sumsion said the committee could settle Aug. 22 on recommendations for school board boundaries, which have received little attention.

There's still work ahead for the committee on the legislative boundaries, but the biggest battle is expected to be over the Congressional districts.

And University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said that debate likely also will be the most political, especially with several legislators already eyeing runs for Congress.

"I don't think that's something the public is going to have a big input on," Burbank said. "It's going to come down to who has the votes, and Republicans have the votes. Democrats don't."

A decade ago, Utah attracted national criticism for what was seen as an attempt to ensure a Democrat couldn’t win the 2nd District by stretching it from Salt Lake through some of the most conservative areas of the state.

That gerrymandering not only failed to prevent Utah's lone Democrat in Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson, from holding onto the seat, it helped him to be seen as a strong contender should he run for statewide office, according to recent polls.

This time, the debate so far has been focused on whether Utah needs a mostly urban congressional district surrounded by much larger rural districts — a so-called doughnut, viewed as the most favorable option for Democrats.

The alternative, widely described as a pizza, would slice the state's urban center into four districts that also would each include rural areas of the state. Diluting urban votes is seen as making it easier for Republicans to win seats.

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