Paul Nitze: Redistricting circus is returning to town |

Paul Nitze: Redistricting circus is returning to town

Paul Nitze
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

At around 5 feet and 100 pounds, Gail Schwartz is not the most physically intimidating member of the state Senate. Nor would many people describe her as ill-tempered. Nonetheless, she has a strange ability to attract venomous outrage. I’m thinking of last October’s dead-of-night election flier drop, in which a shadow group called the “Western Tradition Partnership” pasted Schwartz’s face onto Donald Trump’s body, so she appeared both maniacal and balding.

Last week produced the latest episode, when state Rep. Dave Balmer, a Centennial Republican, exploded at Schwartz on the Senate floor. His antics were triggered by Schwartz’s complaint that a redistricting committee meeting was moved from Glenwood Springs to Grand Junction. Balmer was subsequently banned from any further appearances on the Senate floor for the remainder of the legislative session.

In fairness to Schwartz, Balmer has been hard at work replacing Doug Bruce as the Capitol’s resident loose cannon. Balmer was an up-and-comer in North Carolina politics before he was caught padding his resume. He also disappeared for a day due to a bout with “amnesia.” Since planting stakes in Colorado, he has been hit with an ethics complaint during his run for the House Republican leadership, and was also accused of threatening a fellow Republican lawmaker with retribution for her vote on a construction-defects bill.

But enough about Balmer. Put aside the particular cast of characters involved in this incident and consider the issue that sparked it – congressional redistricting. Between now and the end of the year, the redistricting committee on which Schwartz and Balmer sit will have drawn new lines for Colorado’s seven congressional districts. Over roughly the same period a separate committee will reapportion Colorado’s state legislative districts.

Other players will be involved in both efforts, but congressional redistricting will largely take place within the confines of the redistricting committee, which is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. And if past history is any guide, expect much more bickering before it’s over.

Last time the redistricting circus came to town, in 2001, it devolved into legal trench warfare that passed through the Colorado and U.S. Supreme Courts. When that case was finally resolved in 2006, we were left with a congressional map that was drawn not by legislators but by a state judge in Denver.

Part of the reason why Schwartz was attacked so viciously last fall by Republican soft money was because it was a redistricting cycle. Hickenlooper may have been a lock for the governorship, but both chambers of the legislature were up for grabs. Neither side got what they wanted, which means neither side will be able to ram through a gerrymandered redistricting plan.

Divided government seems to warm many voters’ hearts, particularly independents. You might think this will result in fairly apportioned districts, which both parties have a shot at winning, and where moderate candidates will thrive. Don’t count on it.

Colorado politics has been especially vibrant over the last decade, so much so that we’re seen as something of an electoral incubator, particularly for Dems who want to “win the West.” What was a 5-2 congressional majority for the GOP was briefly flipped to a 5-2 Democratic majority. Moderate Democrats like Betsy Markey and John Salazar won tough races.

Part of that story has to do with the congressional map drawn after the last census. Of Colorado’s seven seats, at least three were unusually competitive – the third, fourth, and seventh districts. A strong candidate from either party could win any of those districts in any cycle. This encouraged new blood and discouraged candidates from kow-towing to their base.

This time around we are likely to see a return to the status quo circa 1991, when a divided Colorado Legislature drafted a plan (for the five districts we had at the time) that produced only one competitive seat. Colorado legislators are now working with seven seats, and a population that, for all the talk of a Democratic resurgence, skews slightly conservative.

The 1991 plan wasn’t entirely without controversy. Among other things, it attempted to split the city of Aspen in half, a move that was struck down by the courts. And Aspen is likely to be a pawn this time around too – are you ready to be represented by Jared Polis? But the instinct then was to split the spoils and protect incumbents, and that same instinct will guide a divided committee this time.

My best guess is that the parties strike a deal to protect the 3rd District for Scott Tipton, the GOP incumbent, in exchange for greater protection for Ed Perlmutter in the 7th District. Each party will enjoy three safe seats, leaving the 4th District, represented by Corey Gardner, as the only really competitive district left.

This kind of deal will work great for the incumbents, who won’t have to hustle to keep their seats, but it guarantees that Colorado politics won’t be as vibrant in the coming decade as it was in the last.

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