Court drafts new political districts Knox County key among changes

Bangor Daily News (ME) - Thursday, June 19, 2003
Author: A. J. HIGGINS, OF THE NEWS STAFF: Bangor Daily News
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has charted its own course in determining the fairest geographic divisions for the state's 35 Senate seats and two congressional districts by offering a new political map bearing little resemblance to competing Republican and Democratic proposals. 

"I think the court has done its best in both cases to be fair, but we might be able to suggest some ways that they could improve it," said Phillip Merrill, a Portland lawyer who helped craft the Democratic plans. 

Merrill and his Republican counterpart, David Emery of Tenants Harbor, will have the opportunity to submit last-minute changes to the draft proposal Monday during a 10 a.m. public hearing before the supreme court in Portland. The court will then deliberate on the reapportionment plans and issue its final decision no later than July 2. 

The state's redistricting process is constitutionally mandated every 10 years to reflect changes in population as recorded in the most recent U.S. Census. The 2000 federal survey verified that Maine's population had shifted dramatically from north to south, forcing the line between the state's 1st and 2nd Congressional Districts to be redrawn for balanced representation. 

The demographic migration from north to south also affected the state's legislative seats. Although Democrats and Republicans were able to agree to a bipartisan plan for redesignating the political boundary lines for the Maine's 151 House districts, they were unable to do the same for the Senate. 

The Legislature approved the House plan on April 15, which will remain unchanged pending the resolution of a lawsuit filed by the Green Independent Party. The state's fledgling third party had its sole legislative member's district eliminated under the bipartisan redistricting plan, a maneuver it described as gerrymandering in its complaint to the supreme court. 

Although agreement was reached on the House redistricting plan, the Senate and congressional proposals were sent to the supreme court, the designated final arbiter in the absence of a bipartisan plan. 

The high court left the 1st and 2nd Congressional Districts largely intact aside from the potentially controversial decision to move Knox County, a longtime 1st District region into the 2nd District. 

One lawmaker, who asked not to be identified, said including Knox County in the 2nd District could pose different problems for 1st District Rep. Tom Allen, D-Portland, and 2nd District Rep. Michael Michaud, D-East Millinocket. 

Allen traditionally has been able to rely on numerous contributors for fund raising, a source of money that would disappear under the court's plan. Michaud, whose politics were described by the legislator as "a tad conservative" for progressive Democrats in Knox County, would have to develop an entire new base in the former 1st District region. 

"Frankly, we're hearing from a lot of people in Knox County that are very unhappy with the plan," Merrill said. "They have always felt closer to Portland. We're still appraising how we feel about it." 

In devising its proposal, the court also accepted a higher standard of population deviation than the recommended federal standard of a single person between competing congressional districts. Under the court's plan, there would be 41 more people in the 2nd District than in the 1st District. 

"Frankly, that was a real surprise to us, we didn't expect the court to do that," Emery said. "So while it's different, we don't really mind it at all." 

Kennebec County is now the only divided county between the two districts. The Democratic plan would have placed more of Kennebec into the 2nd District, and the GOP proposal would have placed all of Kennebec into the 2nd District. 

The court's plan places all of Kennebec in the 1st District and designates Lincoln County as the only divided county in the state. The proposal places Bremen and Monhegan Island in the 2nd District and the remainder of the county in the 1st District. 

Merrill and Emery agreed that the court's numerous subtle changes to redistricting the state Senate made it more difficult to draw contrasts between the plan and versions offered by Democrats and Republicans. 

Both men were slightly concerned by the potential pairing of incumbents in the next election cycle. Sens. Ethan Strimling and Michael Brennan, both Portland Democrats, would be placed in the same district in 2004. 

Meanwhile, in northern Maine, the court's plan would place Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, in the same district as Sen. Stephen Stanley, D-Medway. The court proposal keeps 23 districts within single counties, eight districts divided between two counties and four districts divided among three counties. 

"They made a different map for the Senate than we did, but we think the court followed our line of reasoning, because it splits fewer towns than the Democratic plan and keeps more seats entirely within a single county," Emery said.