Political math not just for budgets

The bipartisan legislative committee tasked with recommending new boundaries for Colorado’s congressional districts comes to Grand Junction later this week. Let’s wish the members luck in resolving conflicting and sometimes confusing demands.

If all the committee had to do was balance new population numbers from the 2010 census, the task would be daunting. Toss in judgment calls like “community of interest” and ethnic makeup, as well as competing partisan demands, and the task becomes exponentially more difficult.

Assembling the magic number — 718,457 — for each of the state’s seven districts, might seem easy. But, for example, where do we find the extra 12,271 people to make our 3rd Congressional District numbers add up?

The Boulder-based 2nd District needs to lose 15,348 people and it includes counties like Eagle, Summit and Grand, which logically would be a better fit with us. The 5th District, centered on Colorado Springs, needs to trim 7,445 folks. It includes Chaffee and Lake counties, also likely to share more ties with western Colorado than the Front Range.

Toss in the fact that two metro-area districts, the 1st and 7th Districts, must add 96,000 people and another to the south, the 6th District, needs to drop more than 79,000 and you begin to see why it’ll be tough to make the numbers work. Trimming 6,584 from the remaining Eastern Plains district, the 4th Congressional District, starts to look easy.

But mapmakers are also required to decide such things as whether Hispanic populations in Pueblo and the San Luis Valley are a “community of interest” and which counties might be split between congressional districts to make the math work.

That raises some interesting questions.

What the heck do the La Junta, Trinidad and Walsenburg areas have in common with us? Wouldn’t they logically be a better fit with their southeastern Colorado neighbors in the 4th? Don’t the resort and tourism-oriented economies around Breckenridge, Vail, Winter Park, Leadville and Buena Vista fit better in the 3rd with Aspen, Crested Butte, Steamboat Springs and Durango? Not to mention most of them are located on the sunset side of the Continental Divide.

Is the inclusion of Grand Junction and Pueblo in the same congressional district anything more than a marriage of convenience between two areas of roughly equal larger populations rather than the fact both enjoy the taste of Western Slope water? My Pueblo relatives might not agree, but don’t they have more in common with Colorado Springs, just 30 minutes to the north, than Grand Junction, five hours to the northwest?

Add in all the western Colorado counties I’ve listed, subtract Pueblo and those southeastern counties, and we’re left tens of thousands of folks short of a full congressional district boat. Or perhaps back, as we once were, in the same district as Fort Collins.

Missing from all the discussion is another important consideration: competitive districts. We happen to live in one. Most Coloradans don’t.

The 3rd District seems to switch between Republicans and Democrats with regularity. And Colorado’s newest district, the 7th, has had representation from both parties since 2002. But, if you’re of the GOP persuasion, don’t bother to campaign in the 1st or 2nd.  Democrats need not apply in the 5th and 6th. The 4th is an uphill battle for the Ds, absent an aberration like Marilyn Musgrave in a year when Barack Obama is at the top of the ticket.

A couple of decades ago, then-chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, Howard “Bo” Callaway, and his Democratic counterpart advanced the idea of making populations of the state’s congressional districts as equally divided between the two major parties as possible. We’d benefit, their reasoning went, if good candidates and their ideas became more important than party affiliation. These days we might have to divide by three instead of two in order to reflect Colorado’s “third party” of unaffiliated voters.

The short story is that there’ll be no easy answers for the legislative committee that’ll be seeking your opinions from 9 a.m. until noon this Saturday at Mesa State College. The committee’s recommendations, due in mid-April, are sure to upset as many as they please.

And we haven’t even considered the task of redrawing boundaries for 100 state legislators, a task that just might make recommending congressional district changes seem like a spring-break walk on a sunny beach.

A bumper sticker in Jim Spehar’s home office proclaims “Western Colorado…the 51 state.”  That might be the only way to create a true Western Slope congressional district. Your ideas are welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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