REDRAWING THE LINES - New Governor Key in Politically Charged Redistricting

Deborah Baker
Albuquerque Journal
August 1, 2010

SANTA FE — Whoever is elected governor this year will have the opportunity to literally shape New Mexico politics for at least the next decade.

In 2011, with fresh U.S. Census population data in hand, the Legislature must redraw the lines of the districts from which members of Congress, state lawmakers and other officials are elected.

It’s a difficult, politically charged process that often ends up in messy court fights.

“No matter how you work it out, almost no one will be happy,” the late Bruce King said in 2001, recalling his experience as the Democratic governor during redistricting in 1971, 1981 and 1991.

Whether it’s Democrat Diane Denish or Republican Susana Martinez on the Capitol’s fourth floor next year, she will be key to the outcome of redistricting.

Every state must redistrict next year, and nearly 6,000 legislative seats and 36 governor’s races are on the ballot before then, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“This is the last election before line-drawing starts in earnest. ... The battles for the control of state legislatures, and these races for governor, will have a long effect on the political makeup of Washington and state capitols,” said Tim Storey, the NCSL’s redistricting expert.

That’s because while the purpose of redistricting is to make sure districts are roughly equal in population — so everyone is equally represented — the reality is that the political party with more clout is likely to draw maps favorable to itself.

Political party clout

In New Mexico, the Legislature is firmly in Democratic control and virtually certain to stay that way.

Democrats have a 27-15 majority in the Senate, and no senator is up for election this year. In the House, where all 70 seats are on the November ballot, Democrats outnumber Republicans 45-25.

“It’s possible the Republicans will pick up some House seats in the upcoming election, because the mood of the state and the nation has changed somewhat,” said Albuquerque pollster and politics observer Brian Sanderoff.

But while it’s conceivable that the GOP could narrow the gap, “the Democrats would still clearly be in control of the House,” he said.

Beyond the party balance in the Legislature, the next governor will have veto power, as always, over whatever plans are sent to her by lawmakers.

If Denish were governor, that would give Democrats a freer rein with redistricting and make it more likely that their plans would be signed into law.

“The goal again this time, if Denish is elected, is to lock in permanent (Democratic) majorities for another 10 years,” said Sen. Rod Adair, a Roswell Republican and a demographer who has been active in redistricting.

If Martinez is in charge and Democrats pass legislation unacceptable to the GOP, “she won’t sign it and then we’d be in a deadlock,” said Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, an Albuquerque Democrat.

That’s what happened last time around: Republican Gov. Gary Johnson in 2001 vetoed new districts for members of the Congress, the Legislature and the state Board of Education, chiding lawmakers for “partisanship and egotistical bickering.”

Drawing the maps

One of the plans Johnson axed was a congressional map — he said it looked like a “state fair pinwheel” — that split the Albuquerque area among the three congressional districts.

It also created a Democrat-leaning, Hispanic-majority 2nd District stretching all the way from Albuquerque to Las Cruces.

That has been a recurring theme in redistricting fights, as Democrats have tried to figure out how to wrest control of the largely southern district from Republicans who have held it since 1981.

GOP lawmakers in 2001 came up with their own congressional plan, creating a “high-tech” district by putting Los Alamos and Rio Rancho into the Albuquerque-based 1st District, with Sandia National Laboratories.

Neither of those plans was adopted by the state district judge who ultimately had the say on redistricting; he opted for a map that made only minor changes to existing districts.

Currently, all three of New Mexico’s congressional seats are held by Democrats. Again, the politics of congressional map-drawing in this next round of redistricting could be driven by what happens in November.

If, for example, Democrat Harry Teague holds on to his 2nd District seat, Democratic lawmakers might be less inclined to drastically alter the district’s boundaries and instead just try to shore it up with Democratic voters.

If, however, Republican Steve Pearce beats Teague and wins his old seat back, Democratic legislators might get more creative with their drawings in an effort to regain it.

The success of either of those scenarios, of course, depends on who’s governor.

Population dynamics

According to Sanderoff, all three congressional districts have experienced pockets of growth in the past decade, and the existing boundaries could simply be finetuned.

That’s not true, however, of legislative districts.

New Mexico’s East Side has not kept pace with population increases elsewhere in the state, while there’s been explosive growth in Rio Rancho and on Albuquerque’s West Side, Sanderoff said.

And lawmakers can’t create additional seats: The Senate must have 42 and the House must have 70.

“If a new seat emerges somewhere, simple math tells you a seat has to disappear,” Sanderoff said.

“Everything’s going to have to shift to the west in order to reach out and grab pockets of population ... shift to the Rio Grande corridor,” Adair said.

That’s politically tricky, at best; every rejiggering of a line affects the neighboring district.

“It becomes dicey, because you can’t anticipate how the dominoes are going to fall,” said Ortiz y Pino, whose own Downtown Albuquerque district hasn’t seen much growth.

Redistricting is likely to be done in a special session in the fall of 2011.

And why should New Mexicans care how the lines are drawn?

“People should care if they want to choose their representatives, rather than have the representatives choose them,” Adair said.

He contends that districts should be drawn around “communities of interest,” with towns and cities kept intact and races kept competitive.

“The voters go through the motions, but if you have a district where greater than 60 percent of people are voting for a certain party in every single election, up and down the ballot, then, in effect, the Legislature has chosen its constituents,” Adair said.