Population shifts define new districts

Kennebec Journal (Augusta, ME) - Friday, March 30, 2001
Author: DIETER BRADBURY, Blethen Maine Newspapers
The 2000 census figures released Thursday will send a shock wave rippling through Maine's political landscape. 

State lawmakers will use the numbers to reapportion Maine's two congressional seats and draw new boundary lines for state legislative districts, county commissioners and city councilors. 

Population shifts defined by the census will threaten incumbents, create opportunities for challengers and redefine the geographic power bases of the two major parties. 

In general, suburban towns in southern and coastal Maine will gain clout. Aroostook and other rural counties, extending a trend that began 40 years ago, will lose it. 

To a lesser extent, Portland and other cities will also see their influence erode, because urban population growth has lagged behind the rapid expansion of the suburbs. 

Among experts, there's no consensus whether Republicans or Democrats will benefit from the process. But one thing is clear: redistricting will be an ugly, contentious and high-pressure ordeal, with a strong possibility of winding up in the hands of the Maine Supreme Court. 

"The court does not want to see us coming," said Kenneth M. Cole, a Republican lawyer from Portland who has served on two reapportionment commissions. "But the politics of it are such that it's very difficult to reach a compromise." 

Legislative and party leaders will appoint a state reapportionment commission in December 2002. The 15-member panel must submit a plan to the Legislature within 120 days. 

The commission's plan must be approved by a two-thirds vote of both houses and signed by the governor. If the legislative process fails, apportionment falls to the Maine Supreme Court - which has made a number of redistricting decisions over the decades. 

At the congressional level, some observers think Maine will lose one of its two congressional seats in the 2010 or 2020 census because growth here is lagging behind the national rate. 

For now, the state commission will have to move some towns from the 1st District into the 2nd District, to adjust for a population shift from northern to southern Maine. 

Thursday's figures showed the 1st District with a 2000 population of 666,936, compared to 607,987 in the 2nd District. That means the line will have to be redrawn to move 29,474 people - or as close to that figure as possible - into the 2nd District. 

The 1st District, represented by Portland Democrat Tom Allen, presently includes York, Cumberland, Sagadahoc, Knox, Lincoln and most of Kennebec counties. 

John Baldacci of Bangor, also a Democrat, represents the 2nd District, which covers the rest of the state and is already the largest district east of the Mississippi River. 

David F. Emery is a former 1st District congressman who studies population trends, Maine voting patterns and demographics. He said it's too soon to tell where the new lines might fall. 

But he said if the general shape of the district remains the same, then lawmakers will be focusing on adjustments in 50 to 60 towns that lie along the boundary of the two areas. 

"You have to create a combination of towns that maintains the lowest possible differential between districts," said Emery, of Tenants Harbor." That's what really drives the process." 

Politics also play a huge role. 

In 1993, for example, it seemed to make geographic sense to include part of Androscoggin County in reapportionment because the Lewiston-Auburn area lies on the border of the two districts. But Republicans were adamantly opposed to that step, because it would have made Olympia Snowe, an Auburn resident who was then a GOP House member, ineligible to run for the seat again. 

Reapportionment was finally accomplished by shifting five Kennebec County towns into the 2nd District, along with the remainder of Waldo County, part of which had already been moved into the district in 1983. 

Mark Hetherington, a government professor at Bowdoin College, has studied the impact of congressional reapportionment. He said it creates powerful opportunities for candidates who have held lower office. 

Hetherington said the 2nd District seat may be especially fluid, with Baldacci not planning to seek re-election in 2002 and reapportionment following for the 2004 election. 

"The beginning of the redistricting cycle is absolutely the most exciting time, especially for congressional seats," he said. "That's the best time for people to make their move." 

Tony Buxton, a Democratic lawyer from Portland and former state representative, said state legislative redistricting offers comparable opportunities - especially for women. 

He said areas where a high proportion of people move in or out -such as New Hampshire - tend to elect many women to public office. He said that's because growth and redistricting undermine the geographic power bases long held by men and create opportunities for women, who are entering politics in ever-increasing numbers. 

Buxton says the same trend is occurring in areas of Maine that are changing rapidly, particularly the southern and midcoast regions. 

From Freeport as far east as Washington County, he notes, most of the coastal state Senate seats have been held by women. 

"Twenty years ago, these were rock-ribbed GOP conservative areas," he said. "Now they're represented by mature, liberal, pro-choice women. These are people who are riding the crest of change in the coastal part of Maine." 

However, suburbanization in Greater Portland or York County could also benefit Republicans. As urban growth slows relative to the suburbs, district lines that once encompassed only heavily Democratic city voters are being redrawn into surrounding towns, where the population can be more conservative. 

Cole, the Republican lawyer, said his party was the beneficiary when Portland's Senate District 27 was redrawn in 1993 to include Falmouth, Long Island and a smaller part of Portland. 

After the change, Joel Abromson became the first Republican to win a Portland legislative seat in three decades. 

For both parties, the possibilities offered by redistricting are tantalizing. 

But while the numbers that will guide the process were revealed today, it will be some time before Democrats or Republicans figure out what they might mean. 

Dwayne Bickford, executive director of the state Republican Party, said GOP leaders have had only preliminary discussions. 

He said it is likely Republicans will once again hire Emery, the former congressman and statistician, to develop a reapportionment plan for the party. 

In 1993, lawmakers couldn't agree on reapportionment and the Maine Supreme Court made the final decision. Their plan, however, was largely based on Emery's analysis. 

"I believe he had a significant influence on the decision," Bickford said. 

At the state Democratic Party, Chairwoman Gwythalen Phillips said a group will be formed in the spring to develop a proposal. 

To Phillips, redrawing state legislative lines may be especially difficult this time because term limits will prevent eight senators and 28 House members from seeking re-election in 2002. That will force the parties to recruit new candidates for districts whose boundaries will be redefined only a year later. 

"It's a fairly dangerous situation to have people come in, be there for two years and then not be able to run again," she said. 

Phillips, who ran the 1980 census for half the state, said Democrats are also concerned about the expansion of northern Maine districts. She said some of the districts are already so large that lawmakers have trouble servicing their constituents.