Utah Dems threaten lawsuit if new congressional map doesn't change

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 28 2011 5:58 p.m. MDT

Students from Riverton Elementary and the KAT program (Kids Against Tobacco) tour the Utah State Capitol on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah State Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said Wednesday the party will take the state to court unless Republicans back away from a controversial new congressional map.

"If the outrageous insult to the people of Utah stands that is the Republican power bosses' map, the Democratic Party will be suing, no question about it," Dabakis told the Deseret News.

A memo from the Utah Democratic Lawyers Council obtained by the News states "Utah could become a prime candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court to establish its new judicial test for partisan gerrymandering," depending on the outcome of redistricting.

The memo, dated Monday and distributed to party leaders, also notes that the court would consider a number of factors, including "whether legislators selected their own voters" and if a majority party was "trying to exaggerate its voting strength."

Democrats have data showing that while roughtly 40 percent of Utahns vote Democratic, the party holds on average less than 30 percent of elected offices. The lawyers' memo suggests that the court look for "partisan symmetry" between votes cast and the legislative seats held by a party.

Dabakis said the Republicans "may have stepped on a hornet's nest by being so blatant" with the new map. He said the party is already receiving calls of support and contributions.

"We're going to have more than enough money to pay for this lawsuit if it comes to that," he said. "You've got to be careful about pushing Utahns too far and this map goes over the top."

His threat comes after the Legislature's Redistricting Committee voted Tuesday to advance a congressional map from House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, that divides Salt Lake County among three of the state's now four congressional districts

Democrats, outnumbered 5-14 on the committee, are expected to present an alternative at the committee's final meeting on Thursday.  A special legislative session to set new congressional, legislative and state school board districts based on the 2010 Census starts Monday.

The map, seen as divvying up the Democrat's Salt Lake area stronghold into largely rural districts dominated by conservatives, also has politicians planning to run in 2012 reconsidering their options.

The state's lone Democrat in Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson, has said he's still considering challenging GOP Gov. Gary Herbert or Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. There's also talk now that he may run in the new 4th District seat in Congress where the only candidate so far is state Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman.

The map shifts the boundaries of Matheson's 2nd District seat from much of eastern Utah to much of western Utah. The new boundaries would include all of Salt Lake City and all of southern Utah.

The new 4th District seat would encompasses western Salt Lake and Utah counties, where Lockhart noted much of the state's population growth has occurred since the last census 10 years ago.

Several contenders for Matheson's seat, including Republican Morgan Philpot, who narrowly lost a bid in 2010 to unseat the six-term congressman, don't live within the proposed new 2nd District boundaries.

Congressional candidates don't have to live in the districts they're seeking to represent, but it can be a political liability not to. However, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, lives outside the 3rd District that he represents.

Philpot, who lives in Orem, said he'll move into the 2nd District at some point. But he said Wednesday there's also a possibility now that he'll run instead for governor against Herbert.

"I would definitely consider it. I think we need a little more strength in that position, a little more leadership," Philpot said. "I hear that almost everywhere I go."

Thursday's committee meeting is expected to finalize the redistricting bills that will be introduced at the special session. The agenda for the special session, issued Wednesday by the governor, also includes several other items, including legislation to place presidential candidates on the June primary ballot.

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com, Twitter: dnewspolitics

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