Redistricting drama to play out at special Legislative session

Published: Saturday, Oct. 10 2015 6:59 a.m. MDT

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Cue the politicians and the protesters.

The special legislative session to finish the once-every-decade job of adjusting the boundaries of the state's congressional, legislative and school board districts to reflect the latest census starts Monday.

"It's the same movie that's played out every 10 years," said Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. "The side with the power creates a map that's to their advantage. And the side that's not in power whines about it."

So far, everyone seems to be following the script.

Early last week, House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, presented her version of a map dividing the state's urban core into four largely rural congressional districts to the Legislature's GOP-dominated Redistricting Committee.

Despite the threat of a lawsuit by state Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis, who said breaking up the minority party's stronghold disenfranchises voters, members of the committee approved the map 48 hours later in a party-line vote.

On Monday, opponents of the so-called "pizza slice" approach to redistricting are holding a rally starting on the steps of the Capitol at 11:30 a.m. to urge lawmakers to "just vote no."

Speakers will include Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for governor last year, as well as advocates of an independent redistricting process.

"What we keep hearing from everyone is, 'Why did they waste our time … with the public hearing process?'" said Maryann Martindale, Alliance for a Better UTAH executive director.

Martindale said the public made it clear during those hearings that they didn't want their communities split up to accommodate the population changes identified in the 2010 Census, which gave Utah a new fourth congressional district.

Their preference is centering as many as three congressional districts in Salt Lake and other urban counties, and surrounding them with a rural district, the so-called "doughnut hole" map.

"What we kept arguing for was fairness, districts that gave representation to people based on where they live and what their concerns were," Martindale said. Southern Utahns, she said, are complaining they "don't even have the same weather," as Salt Lake City and other Wasatch Front communities that would be in the same congressional district.

Holladay Mayor Dennis Webb testified before the committee that his small community would be split among three congressional districts, making it difficult secure support for federal assistance.

Republicans argue they have avoided dividing many communities as a result of what they've heard from the public, including Salt Lake City, and that a mix of urban and rural residents in each district is best for the state.

"All that public comment has been factored in, in my opinion," state GOP Chairman Thomas Wright said. "This is not a Democratic state. This is a Republican state. It has been for a couple of decades."

GOP Gov. Gary Herbert, who has the power to veto any map passed by the Legislature, said he's encouraged lawmakers to come up with "a fair and balanced approach that's defendable."

Taking a balanced approach, the governor said, means putting both rural and urban residents in every district. "I think it's served us well in the past and will serve us well in the future," he said.

The committee produced excerpts from the minutes of public hearings that showed at least a slight majority of people in attendance preferred a "pizza slice" approach in six of eight communities. The "doughnut hole" style of map was favored only in Park City and Rose Park.

Jowers, who supports an independent redistricting commission, said both Republican and Democrats are attempting to benefit politically from the process.

"No party is pure in this," he said, noting both parties are "trying to find ways to advantage themselves but they're trying to put it in non-partisan ways."

In the end, Jowers said there's little doubt the GOP majority will push through the proposal they believe gives their party the best shot at winning all four congressional seats.   

"The truth is, for every party through time, it's a small price to pay for the benefit, a couple of weeks of protests and critical press stories for 10 years of having the boundaries drawn the way you want," he said.

Still, he said, there is a history here of redistricting backfiring on Republicans.

After the 2000 Census, Utah lawmakers were accused of some of the nation's worst gerrymandering by the conservative Wall Street Journal when they stretched the 2nd District through much of rural Utah.

But that district has continued over the past decade to reelect the state's lone Democratic member of Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson. Matheson is leaving his options open for 2012.

He could run for reelection in the 2nd or even make a bid for the new fourth district seat carved from western Salt Lake and Utah counties.  And he's also considering taking on a Republican in a statewide race, either Herbert or Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

The governor was accused last week of trying to pressure lawmakers to put enough Democrats in the 2nd District to keep Matheson from challenging him. The accusation came from Republican Morgan Philpot, who narrowly lost to Matheson last year and may run for governor.

Although the congressional map is getting all the attention, lawmakers also have to their own boundaries for the next 10 years. Changes were still being made to the House and Senate maps over the weekend.

Because of shifts in population, a number of House and Senate incumbents are likely to end up in the same districts. Unlike Congress, candidates for the Legislature must live in the district they seek to represent.

The co-chairman of the Redistricting Committee, Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, became emotional describing how he had to "draw one of my very best friends into another seat because it was the right thing to do."

That friend, Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, now must face off next election against a close ally on Capitol Hill, Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, unless one or both of them seek another office.

Sandstrom had been eying the 3rd District congressional seat now held by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. But Chaffetz has decided to run for reelection rather than Hatch's Senate seat.

The special session is expected to last several days. Special computers will be set up for the public outside the Capitol's fourth floor House and Senate galleries so proposed changes to the maps can be viewed.

In addition to redistricting, lawmakers will also take up several other issues including making a technical fix to allow the 2012 presidential candidates to appear on the June primary ballot.

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