BALANCE OF POWER COULD BE SHIFTED

Tom Roeder
The Gazette
November 14, 2010

       A battle that could change the balance of political power in Colorado for the next decade is expected to be bigger than any other for the 2011 General Assembly.

       At issue is redistricting, an every-decade ritual that uses population data to determine the lines of congressional and legislative districts.

       Redistricting resets the political balance in districts for 100 state lawmakers and seven members of Congress by shifting district boundaries, effectively changing political constituencies that incumbents have based their careers on pleasing.

       And small changes in political boundaries can mean big swings at the ballot box.

       The last time lawmakers undertook redistricting, the process resulted in a six-year court battle that set Republicans against Democrats.

       Some lawmakers say the 2011 version is as rife with controversy as 2001's redistricting fight, with lawyers and judges likely figuring out which congressional districts will represent Colorado's voters.

       'I doubt we will come to agreement, frankly, ' said Colorado Springs state Sen. John Morse, a Democrat who serves as his chamber's majority leader.

       'We're hoping for some reasonable back and forth, ' said Monument Rep. Amy Stephens, who became House majority leader when the GOP won control of the chamber this month.

       Redistricting starts with the census, which was taken nationwide this year. On the surface, the goal of redistricting is a simple one: To ensure that every political district in the state, from the General Assembly to Congress, has roughly the same number of people.

       That easy goal gets complicated when politics take over. Democrats want as many districts as possible to have more Democrats than Republicans. Republicans, meanwhile, seek the same advantage for their party.

       In Colorado, congressional districts are decided by the General Assembly. Legislative districts are drawn by a constitutionally mandated redistricting commission, with representatives from the state Supreme Court, both General Assembly chambers and the governor's office.

       That means the legislative district battles, while heated, are an opening act for the congressional district brawl, which will be fought on the General Assembly floor.

       It's a political battle insiders relish. And those insiders are willing to shed blood over the boundaries, because the right map could decide who represents Colorado for years to come.

       'We only get an opportunity to look at this once every 10 years, and if it is skewed one way or another it has a long-term effect, ' said Nathan Fisk, a GOP political consultant in Colorado Springs.

       In El Paso County, the last round of redistricting left Democrats with three winnable General Assembly districts, something they had fought for years to carve out in the state's most conservative county.

       'We certainly don't want to see redistricting happen so they can shuffle around everything so it becomes more conservative, ' said Christy Le Lait, executive director of the El Paso County Democrats.

       Colorado Springs Rep.-elect Pete Lee was a beneficiary of those redistricting decisions, trouncing his Republican opponent in a race for the 18th House District on the city's west side, where Democrats have their only 'safe ' seat in their county.

       Two other seats, the 17th House District and the 11th Senate District, are considered competitive for Democrats, giving them a shot a three of the General Assembly seats that represent the Pikes Peak region.

       'Redistricting only makes a difference if the political makeup of the Legislature has some significance to you, ' Lee said.

       Colorado College political science professor Robert Loevy said the fight over congressional districts likely will center on redrawing the boundaries in and around Denver, with each side vying to include more of their followers.

       Locally, the 5th Congressional District that's centered on Colorado Springs stands a decent chance of staying intact, Loevy said. That's because both parties have reason to like the state's most conservative congressional district.

       Republicans enjoy the safety of the seat.

       'Once you are elected to the fifth district, you sit in that seat until you decide to retire, ' Loevy said.

       Democrats like the 5th District as it stands because it fences in a big share of the state's conservative voters, making other districts more competitive.

       If lawmakers can't agree to a congressional redistricting scheme, the problem could wind up in a courtroom again.

       Loevy attended the hearings in Denver in 2001 when a judge hashed out the current districting plan after Democrats sued, saying Republicans had committed procedural errors to get it passed. He said the judge in that case examined Republican and Democratic plans, picking one.

       A Republican effort to void the judge's ruling by passing their own redistricting plan was shot down in court.

       Morse, the Senate's majority leader, thinks the divided General Assembly could put redistricting in a judge's hands again.

       'With them having a chamber and us having a chamber, either one of us can kill what the other one does, ' he said. 'That tosses it to the courts. '


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