Partisan battle looms as Maine redistricting plan due

Posted Aug. 12, 2011, at 2:42 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 12, 2011, at 7:45 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Competing and likely divergent recommendations from Republicans and Democrats for what Maine should look like under new congressional redistricting scenarios are expected to be released on Monday.

Because both sides agreed to keep their plans confidential until next week, representatives from the major parties declined to talk specifics on Friday.

However, those closely involved in the discussion said the Democrats’ idea is simple: Move one or two towns — likely in Kennebec County — from the 1st District to the 2nd District, which would accomplish the goal of shifting about 4,300 Maine voters so that both districts have roughly the same population.

“We’re looking to disrupt as few voters as possible and also be mindful of the historical implications of the state’s two congressional districts and the relationships that have been built,” said Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, a member of the bipartisan redistricting commission.

The Republicans’ option, according to sources, is much more complicated and could include some version of dividing the state more from east and west rather than from north and south. The GOP plan would still meet the same goal but with a dramatic shift that would affect many more voters.

“We’re going to present a plan that shows a shift, that’s for sure,” said Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, also a member of the commission. “We can’t stick with the status quo.”

The group of seven Democrats, seven Republicans and one independent chairman is scheduled to meet on Monday morning to discuss each side’s plan.

Since they are likely to look vastly different, a compromise could be elusive, although both parties remain hopeful.

“There is going to be some partisan contention because we’re already divided into our party groups,” said Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Naples. “But we’re trying to work toward a consensus plan. We’d like to get unanimous support.”

Added Goodall: “We’re going in with an open-mind and in good faith,” he said. “We don’t want a drawn-out political fight on this.”

Redistricting is mandated for states every 10 years to reflect updated census data.

Maine has two Congressional districts: the 1st District, made up largely of the populated southern Maine counties around Portland, is currently represented by Democrat Chellie Pingree. The 2nd District, which encompasses the balance of rural Maine, is represented by Mike Michaud, also a Democrat.

According to 2010 numbers, more Mainers moved into southern Maine communities and away from rural Maine, a trend that goes back several decades.

The commission has been working since July on creating recommendations. Although the group is bipartisan, the Legislature has the final say, and this is the first time in decades that Republicans have controlled both the House and Senate, a fact that has some Democrats nervous.

Last week, Gov. Paul LePage set Monday, Sept. 27 as the date for a special legislative session for lawmakers to vote on that plan. If the Legislature cannot find consensus, the decision would rest in the hands of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Cebra said the recent Legislative session proved that the two parties can work together on big issues, referencing the budget compromise and legislation that streamlines Maine’s regulatory processes.

The specifics that will be released Monday will follow a handful of guidelines. The line between the two district must be contiguous. It can cut through a county but cannot split an individual city or town. The two districts have to be as close as possible in population but do not have to be exactly equal.

Even though the process looks simple, Cebra said for him it’s much more complicated than moving 4,300 voters.

“If it was that easy, we’d have been done already,” he said.

Plowman said it’s imperative to present a plan that accomplishes the mandated goals, but she also said it’s important that the district look pleasing, aesthetically. The current line separating the 1st and 2nd districts is jagged, especially in Kennebec County, and simply doesn’t pass the straight-face test for many, Plowman said.

Among the unknown political variables are whether or not any or all of Knox County moves from the 1st District to the 2nd District and whether Republicans will try to make the 2nd District as conservative as possible.

If a redistricting plan involves moving Knox County, it could move Pingree’s hometown of North Haven into the 2nd District. Although that option would not matter much since Pingree owns a home in Portland, Democrats said it would further politicize the process in a negative way. Also, although it’s tradition, a House member is not required to live in his or her district.

As for the 2nd District, most political observers agree that it is by far the more conservative and Republican-leaning of Maine’s two districts, even though the seat has been held by a Democrat for the 16 years.

If a redistricting plan shifts towns in just the rights way, Republicans could gain ground in the 2nd District, something that could have an impact on Michaud’s 2012 reelection bid. Although no Republicans have said they plan to run against Michaud, longtime lawmaker and current Senate President Kevin Raye has been rumored as potential candidate.

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