Redistricting redux: Why rural folk (and the GOP) should embrace bipartisan deal

My column last week urging the legislative leadership in both political parties to come to a bipartisan and principled compromise on congressional redistricting drew a few howls of protest.

I’m glad. I like a good debate. So let’s have at it.

A couple of “my friends” on the right bellowed like cows with engorged hemorrhoids over the prospect of compromising with Democrats on redistricting. Their argument against a redistricting deal started off like this: Any sort of agreement with Democrats is bad because Democrats are bad. Their argument against a bipartisan redistricting deal concluded with this: And besides, Democrats are bad, so any agreement with them must be, well, bad.

Ok, well, thanks for that enlightened argumentation, Mr. Socrates.

I personally don’t mind smacking Democrats upside the metaphorical head. Besides it’s obvious therapeutic value, there are times when it’s necessary.

An example is the vote on the federal debt ceiling, where compromise means capitulation. Like passing the bottle to a drunkard, a vote to up the federal government’s borrowing limit is reckless and wrong.

But sometimes principled compromise makes sense, and in the case of redistricting, that is manifestly so. For Republicans and Democrats in rural Colorado, forging a redistricting compromise means protecting our regional interests. This will come as news to some, but there are a few things in life bigger than partisanship, and the fortunes of our region are among them.

It’s the way it has always been in the Legislature — place trumps partisanship, at least for rural legislators. That, combined with the fact that aspiring statewide politicos never want to get politically sideways with rural Colorado, is the reason that communities of interest like the Western Slope, the Eastern Plainsx` and Pueblo and the San Luis Valley have been spared the full frontal gerrymander in redistricting processes in years past.

And, if this altruistic argument for a bipartisan redistricting compromise isn’t sufficiently stirring for the few on the right who think Republicans should never do deals with Democrats, maybe this one will be: If the Legislature gridlocks on redistricting, the final arbiter of our congressional boundaries will be the Colorado Supreme Court, a tribunal otherwise known as the Democratic Central Committee of Colorado.

Let’s take our Pollyanna hats off for a moment and get down to brass tacks: This Supreme Court won’t blink at the chance — not for one half of one half of a second — to stick it to the Republican Party, even if it means bulldozing rural Colorado.  For a decade, this court has made a living of putting what’s good for Democrats and Democratic causes ahead of what the law requires.

So yes, there are a whole host of times when cutting deals doesn’t make any sense. But there are times when being stubborn is — how to say this politely — stupid.

Another reader had a more substantive objection to my column, doubting whether there was a practical way to draw competitive districts, protect communities of interest and leave enough room for Republicans and Democrats to agree. This is a fair question to ask, but the answer is yes.

Remember, this is Colorado, the place where John and Ken Salazar got elected on the same night as the state casts its electoral votes for a president named George W. Bush, the same state that threw out Marilyn Musgrave for Betsy Markey only to throw out Betsy Markey for Cory Gardner two years later. This is a state where future statehouse speakers get whipped by political novices, and where an unknown Democratic U.S. senator who was controversially appointed by an unpopular Democratic governor still managed to win re-election during one of the worst elections in the history of the Democratic Party.

Colorado is, inherently, a competitive political landscape. Communities of interest can absolutely be preserved in ways that don’t unduly tilt the competitive advantage to one party or the other.

Numerous other readers told me they agreed with the call for a bipartisan agreement. I hope the Legislature will reach the same conclusion as these. If they don’t, sooner than later you can bet that Gov. John Hickenlooper will woodshed both parties and claim the bipartisan high ground that is unfortunately now unoccupied in the partisan redistricting tit-for-tat.

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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