Public input sought on redistricting

In a time when political bickering has become a contact sport, state legislators plan to ask Colorado residents how they should handle what usually is the most contentious political issue any state legislature can address: congressional redistricting.

In March, a panel of 10 lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle will go on the road to all seven of the state’s congressional districts to ask such questions as:

Should the state have more competitive districts?

How important are communities of interest, and should they trump making districts more competitive?

Should safe districts such as Denver and El Paso County be split up so more moderate candidates can be elected to office?

Should the Western Slope be made its own district?

Those are only a few of the questions lawmakers will ask of voters, but some political observers aren’t convinced incumbents even care what the answers might be.

John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University who has been an icon in state politics for 32 years, said while competitive districts in Colorado and nationwide is the answer to removing much of the vitriol in American politics, it isn’t likely to happen.

That’s because once lawmakers are elected, the last thing they want is to see their own districts redrawn in a way that could lead them to lose their next election, he said.

“They could draw districts to make the 1st and 5th to be more competitive if the will is there,” said Straayer, referring to the Denver and El Paso County congressional districts, which are heavily Democratic and Republican, respectively.

“Both parties and most of the elected officials talk about the importance of having more competition, except that the incumbents really don’t want that much competition,” he said. “They want safe, protected districts, so they don’t have a fight.”

Despite Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s call for more competitive districts, and the Legislature’s unprecedented creation of a 10-person, bipartisan committee to redraw congressional lines, Straayer said redistricting has been and always shall be about which party gets to be in charge after the next election.

Competitive districts would mean more moderate candidates, which is the last thing “fringe candidates” from both parties want, he said.

“A candidate in a safe district can simply blow off everybody in the other party and chase their ideological fancy,” Straayer said. “In those noncompetitive districts, you can get in there for life and pander to your base because that’s all that matters. The base runs the show, and you’re seeing that right now in Washington.”

For the Western Slope, one question some voters are expected to ask is if the expansive 3rd Congressional District should be redrawn to take out parts that aren’t west of the Continental Divide.

While that would mean taking out Pueblo and putting it’s largest Democratic majority into the heavily Republican 4th or 5th districts to make them more competitive, it would mean the 3rd district would need to replace those voters with similar ones from other areas, such as the Summit Valley region, which is in the 2nd district.

Rep. Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, and Sen. Gail Schwartz, the Snowmass Village Democrat whose district includes the San Luis Valley, say that isn’t likely to happen.

“I think our commitment should be to making it more competitive ... but I don’t know if the numbers are there,” Pace said. “Mathematically, I don’t think there’s enough voters on the Western Slope to make it one district.”

Schwartz said that while she, too, agrees competitive districts should be a major goal, keeping communities of interest together is important, too.

As a result, there would be no way Pueblo could be separated from the San Luis Valley, which has strong historical ties to the southern Colorado city, she said.

“Besides, I like the balance of the 3rd with Pueblo versus the West Slope because Pueblo has many of the same issues by virtue being outside the (Denver) metro area,” she said. “The problem with the 3rd is the size. It’s 60 percent of the state. It’s almost not humanly possible to really be able to be attentive to that land mass.”

Schwartz said that some people in Chaffee County have expressed an interest in being included in the 3rd district, which would make it even larger. Currently, it is the westernmost county in the 5th district.

Not everyone agrees that creating more competitive districts should be considered at all.

Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, said there’s nothing wrong with having heavily Democratic areas such as Denver or overwhelmingly Republican districts such as El Paso County. That lets their congressional members better serve voters in such areas because they represent people of like beliefs.

“The intent of redistricting is to have people of like interests having representative government,” King said.

“It’s representative government, not competitive government. The object here is not to have a game on Sunday that’s competitive. The object is to have a government that represents the people where they live,” King said.

The co-chairmen of the redistricting committee, Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, and Rep. David Balmer, R-Centennial, said the panel will consider everything and anything.

“I have a totally open mind, and I think Representative Balmer has a totally open mind, and we aren’t precluding any ideas,” Heath said.

“The purpose of us going out is to listen to how people are thinking,” Heath said.


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