George Hagenauer: Diversity within legislative districts can lead to better policies

Capital Times, The (Madison, WI) - Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Dear Editor While there is as lot of discussion about the political manipulation of Assembly and Senate districts (and the current redistricting is a new low), I have seen no discussion about how a district’s composition might improve public policy. 

I work for a nonprofit serving children in an eight-county area. We cover urban, suburban and rural areas. When time allows, I brief legislators on the conditions we see in our service area. While the key differences tend to be who the person is and how they approach their job, the composition of districts often can play a role in how they approach issues. 

It is important that various ethnic and cultural groups have representation within the Capitol. I would not like to see a Legislature with no one of a farming or manufacturing background or one that reduces input from the Latino or African-American communities. 

When you are talking with a legislator from a homogenous district and especially someone who may never have lived outside their district, it can take effort to get them to understand the complexities of state policies. Their experience is limited to their district. The end result in these cases can be policies that work well in some areas and not in others. 

On the other hand, I have a state senator and representative whose districts are quite complex. Sen. Jon Erpenbach and Rep. Sondy Pope before redistricting had districts that extended from low-income urban neighborhoods in Madison to rural towns. Because they interacted with a broad range of their constituents, I found them (and a number of legislators with similar configurations) to be able to better understand the various challenges agencies face on a daily basis delivering services to clients ranging from families in low-income housing projects to those in isolated rural areas. 

So while we are looking at redistricting within the context of what voices need to be at the Capitol and what makes competitive districts, it might also be useful to see what configurations might lead to better problem solving and input at the community level. That local knowledge can be far more useful and reflective of Wisconsin’s unique qualities than the prepackaged materials of national think tanks and paid lobbyists. 

Unfortunately, it is not grass-roots community efforts that are driving redistricting .