To understand redistricting, read ‘The Godfather’

Posted Sept. 13, 2011, at 12:51 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 13, 2011, at 2:50 p.m.
Marlon Brando in "The Godfather"
Paramount Pictures/The Associated Press
Marlon Brando in "The Godfather"

WASHINGTON — The first time the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature tried to get rid of Rep. Lloyd Doggett, they cut his district into three pieces. This year, they sliced it into five — and plopped him into a primary against an ambitious up-and-comer for good measure.

And the Legislature didn’t even have to. Texas was a big winner in congressional reapportionment, adding four new seats in 2012. But Doggett has long been in the sights of state Republicans, including Gov. Rick Perry, most recently for Doggett’s attempt to strip Texas’ federal education funding because he didn’t like the way the state was using it.

“I have no doubt in my mind there’s a direct relation to the governor,” Doggett said. “This is a radical plan. And this is not New York or Ohio, where they are losing seats.”

As states — including Maine — redraw congressional districts, the once-a-decade process can also be used to exact political revenge — or gain political advantage.

In Maine, Democrats and Republicans have submitted widely divergent plans to divide the state’s voters into two congressional districts.

The Democrats’ plan — narrowly backed last month by the majority of a bipartisan commission considering the issue — makes only small changes, essentially moving a few thousand voters in Kennebec County from one district to another. The GOP plan would make major changes including moving 1st District Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree’s hometown of North Haven into the 2nd District, a move Pingree called “just downright mean,” in Roll Call magazine.

The Legislature will convene for a special session Sept. 27, in an attempt to settle the matter.

Political adversaries rarely make their efforts explicit. Texas Republicans, for example, maintain they have put forward a fair map designed to reflect the state’s conservative tilt. But the party in power rarely misses an opportunity to tweak old rivals.

“Given the choice you always want to make life more uncomfortable for your political opponent,” said Rich Galen, a Republican strategist.

Galen recalled the Democratically controlled Georgia Legislature conveniently recrafting district lines in 2000 to push two outspoken Republican incumbents, Reps. John Linder and Bob Barr, into the same district. And Doggett — who ran afoul of former House Majority Leader Tom Delay before he made a political enemy of Perry — has experienced it twice himself.

The first time, Republicans drew a district that circled Doggett’s house and stretched 350 miles south to the Rio Grande, meaning he had to traverse vast territory from the capitol to the Mexican border. This time, Doggett’s been drawn into a district that further dilutes his Austin base and stretches down a narrow strip just wider than I-35 into downtown San Antonio.

That’s put him in a primary with Joaquin Castro, a popular state lawmaker and the twin brother of rising star and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro. The district is heavily populated by Latinos and includes the neighborhood where the Castros grew up.

Doggett is the only Texas incumbent to face such a drastic change.

Roughly half the states have finalized or are near finalizing their district maps. While some deliberately strip politics from the process, in plenty of states the maps are being used to settle scores.

North Carolina is maintaining its 13 seats, but Democratic Rep. Brad Miller either will have to run against fellow incumbent Rep. David Price in a primary or in a district that leans Republican. In 2000, Miller ran the process as a member of the North Carolina Legislature, recrafting House districts to make them more amenable for Democrats.

Miller says it’s a reflection of his work in Washington on the Democratic side of the aisle. North Carolina Republicans have said giving Republicans the majority in the house delegation — not upending Miller specifically — is their goal.

In Utah, Republicans long ago tired of Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson holding onto a seat in a state they otherwise dominate. With the state gaining a seat in redistricting, the GOP-held Legislature is signaling it will favor a map that vastly dilutes Matheson’s Salt Lake City-area base, creating a congressional map that looks like a half of a pizza, with four slices that meet in and around Salt Lake City.

Missouri Democratic Rep. Russ Carnahan is the last remaining officeholder from a family that has dominated state politics for nearly 20 years. The state’s Republican-controlled legislature is on track to end that hegemony and pay back years of political squabbles after it eliminated Carnahan’s district in a map that was voted into law after an override of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto.

And in Illinois, the Democratic-controlled Legislature put Rep. Joe Walsh, a tea party follower, into the same district as fellow Republican and tea party supporter Rep. Randy Hultgren. The new district comes as Illinois loses a seat in 2012 and after Walsh’s outspoken manner — he called President Obama a “liar” earlier this year — has drawn the ire of virtually all of the state’s top Democrats.

“The whole process stinks,” Walsh said. “It shouldn’t be left up to politics.”

But Walsh is ignoring the reality of the process, said Jack Pitney, a political scientist professor at Claremont McKenna College and former political operative.

“Redistricting is politics in the raw,” he said. “To understand it, you don’t need to read ‘The Federalist Papers.’ You need to read ‘The Godfather.’”

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