As U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann exited the presidential race in Iowa on Wednesday, lawyers in St. Paul were debating the boundaries of her congressional district and whether she will have to fight for her seat with the state's only other woman in the House.
A special redistricting panel of judges heard final oral arguments from lawyers trying to influence the panel's decision on redrawing congressional and legislative districts to conform to population shifts discovered in the 2010 census.
The DFL's plan would redraw the current Fourth Congressional District to include residences of both Bachmann and the district's incumbent, U.S. Rep Betty McCollum, D-St. Paul. Lawyer Eric Magnuson, representing a rival plan supported by Republicans, said of the Democratic plan: "It pairs the only two female congresswomen in Minnesota."
Bachmann has not said whether she'll seek a fourth term in Congress. Even if she does, a showdown with McCollum is far from certain. The map that would put them in the same district is but one of several proposals being considered by the five-judge panel. If DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican-controlled Legislature do not reach an agreement on new district lines, the panel will issue their maps by Feb. 21.
At that point, political activists, partisans and elected officials would scramble to prepare to run in the new districts in November.
District maps are redrawn every 10 years to ensure that the districts encompass the same numbers of people. Magnuson defended maps and plans based on those passed by the Republican Legislature and vetoed by Dayton, saying they are an attempt to meet criteria set out by the redistricting panel.
One key element of the Republican congressional plan is that rural districts stretch border to border from east-to-west, which Magnuson said is an "inevitability due to population shifts." He said these maps seek to avoid unnecessarily dividing cities and to protect "communities of interest," including tribal lands, border communities and other federal lands in the proposed Eighth Congressional District in the north.
Magnuson criticized rival plans to attempt to knit together disparate suburban communities.
"The first girl I dated seriously lived in West St. Paul," he said. "I went to Osseo High School. The relationship didn't work."
Marc Elias, representing the Democratic plan, said that had Magnuson been living in Edina and dating a woman who lived in McLeod County, to the west, "he would have found that even more unbearable." Both are in the Republicans' Third Congressional District.
Elias and David Lillehaug, also representing the DFL plan, accused the Republicans of gerrymandering in order to lock in gains from the 2010 election. They said the courts should not, in effect, overturn Dayton's veto by agreeing to the Republican plan. Elias said the DFL plan more closely "reflects the actual testimony of voters" from the panel's public hearings.
Attorney Alan Weinblatt, representing a third plan, encouraged the panel to "be judges, not politicians." He called the east-west alignment of districts in the Republican plan "radical surgery."
The panel is presided over by Judge Wilhelmina Wright of the Minnesota Court of Appeals. This last scheduled public hearing came near the end of a long process that has included public hearings around the state.
Mike Dean, executive director of Common Cause Minnesota, said after the hearing that both the DFL and Republican maps were "drawn with the intention of protecting incumbent politicians of their own party and defeating the opposition party." He urged the panel to reject the maps and "start fresh."
Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042