‘My friend,’ compromise is possible on redistricting

One of the most over-used euphemisms used between warring parties engaged in political combat is, “my friend.” You know what I’m talking about. When you hear the words “my friend” during a floor speech from any House or Senate chamber, you know the hammer is about drop.

“To my friend, the senator from so-and-so, your ideas are sophomoric and insincere, and you are an unthinking retrograde, and an enemy of this republic.”

That’s the reason I don’t like to use the descriptor “my friend,” even when talking about, well, my friends in politics.

But there’s an exception to every rule, and I’ll make one here for my friends Frank McNulty, the speaker of the Colorado House, and Brandon Shaffer, the president of the Senate — the two chief combatants in the current legislative fist-fight over the redistricting process.

Frank is as smart as Brandon is tough — and vice versa. Both know the art of raw partisanship and both know how to cut the deal that moves an issue forward.

Still, the trick in politics is knowing when to fight with “my friend” and knowing when to cut that big deal. That’s why I thought Shaffer and McNulty’s opening ante in the redistricting process was a virtuoso political move. Appearing together, the two appointed a bipartisan committee with a clear charge of getting to the end game of congressional maps that worked for both parties and all corners of the state.

Redistricting is one of those objectively important things that the Legislature does. Its outcome in swing states like Colorado plays a central role in deciding whether the speaker in the U.S. House is named Boehner or Pelosi.

The big stakes in redistricting tend to bring out the worst in the Legislature. Gerrymanders and power-grabs, name-calling and finger pointing, boycotts, barbs and boisterous partisanship — all of the unsavory ingredients of legislative sausage making — find themselves in the ingredient bowl on this one.

That is what made the Shaffer-McNulty redistricting committee such a bold and theatrically brilliant move. It aimed to diffuse partisanship and rancor from a process that is intrinsically partisan and innately rancorous. It was statesmanship during redistricting.

Statesmanship? During redistricting? Huh?

But readers know the bottom has fallen out of all that happy talk. The Big Board in Vegas now shows the odds of a redistricting deal are somewhat less likely than the Chicago Cubs winning a World Series.

It’s a shame, for many reasons.

First, this is a deal that, in the political sense, can be struck. It isn’t as if either side is under intense outside pressure to avoid a compromise. The tea partiers aren’t demanding stalemate. George Soros and progressives aren’t insisting on a Tom Delay-style gerrymander power grab. The public just wants maps that are fair and reasonable.

Second, this is a deal that, in the substantive sense, can be struck. Democrats say they want competitive districts, and although their maps mangled a few important communities of interest, their seats are by-and-large competitive. Republicans say they want to protect a couple of communities of interest that the Democrats’ map didn’t, but for their part they seem ready to gut a map consisting of more competitive districts than not. If it were impossible to have competitive seats and protect communities of interest, we would be at impasse. But it is not.

Third, there are adults on the committee capable of cutting a deal if Shaffer and McNulty insist on it. Sens. Greg Brophy and Rollie Heath could have an agreement in 45 minutes if that was their charge. Both are smart, and both are themselves statesmen.

Last, a redistricting compromise is the right thing to do for the institution of representative government. Principled compromise is good for the body politic and its representative institutions. By the way, principled compromise is also good for the men and women who forge it. A Shaffer-McNulty, Brophy-Heath redistricting compromise would be remembered every 10 years as being the sui generis political virtuoso that, in fact, it would be.

The math on this one overwhelmingly clamors for compromise, so much so that the public would probably even forgive McNulty and Shaffer for referring to one another as “my friend” at the press conference unveiling this virtuoso effort lying in wait.

Josh Penry is a former Colorado Senate minority leader and a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.


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