Lori Sturdevant: Redistricting

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 1, 2011 - 4:56 PM

It's likely again to go to the courts, but can the public can play a role?

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2010: Sen. Al Franken chatted with Tarryl Clark, who faced an uphill fight against Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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I've got bad news for the DFL congressional candidate who's rooting for new Eighth District boundaries that encompass both St. Cloud and Duluth.

At its public hearing in St. Cloud, the locals told the Draw the Line Minnesota citizens' commission that they'd rather share a member of Congress with Moorhead than Duluth.

Sorry, Tarryl.

But the former St. Cloud state senator who lost to GOP presidential contender Michele Bachmann in 2010 in the Sixth District, then purchased a condo in Duluth and said she would run in 2012 in the Eighth District, still can hope.

Tarryl Clark's dream district could still appear on the map that emerges next February, all but certainly from the hands of five judges appointed to set new district boundaries if the Legislature and governor don't.

This week, those judges will commence their own eight hearings, one in each congressional district. If you want to testify in person, you're already too late to sign up.

But the court's final authority hasn't kept Draw the Line Minnesota's 15-member, multipartisan commission from behaving as if it had the power to draw the lines (hence its name).

Last month, it collected opinions from upwards of 300 people during 18 open-mike hearings around the state. It will use that testimony to prepare its own recommendations to the judges.

In short, it's showing what an independent redistricting commission would do, if Minnesota had been wise enough to create one -- as 12 other states have.

Minnesota didn't. In this state, despite a solid push for change from a panel of elder statesmen, the realigning of districts to equalize their population after the decennial census remains the work of the Legislature and governor. Unless they can't agree. Then the courts take over.

Thus it is that the courts have drawn new congressional and legislative district lines three of the last four times, and seem about to make it four out of five.

Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed GOP-designed maps in May, and inaction since suggests that the Republican legislative majorities would rather take their chances with the judges than try to satisfy the DFL governor.

More telling: Top GOP operatives and money-raisers have formed Minnesotans for Fair Redistricting. It's a sway-the-court group that's hired top legal talent -- including former state Chief Justice Eric Magnuson -- to argue for a GOP design.

Draw the Line Minnesota is a buck-a-plate beanfeed compared with the GOP's steak-and-lobster operation. And, despite insinuations by conservative bloggers, it is not a DFL front group.

(I trust that somewhere, a band of tech-savvy DFLers is drawing maps to present to the courts. This is an example of faith in things unseen.)

Draw the Line is a project of the Midwest Democracy Network, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and the Minnesota Council of Non-profits, and is funded by the Joyce Foundation and the Bush Foundation. Its commission includes a mix of known devotees of each of Minnesota's major parties, plus a handful of that rare breed -- true independents.

Common Cause and the League of Women Voters have also created a sister project at www.drawminnesota.org. It allows anyone to try a hand at political mapmaking and/or voice an opinion that will be conveyed to the courts.

The five-judge panel ought to pay them heed. These efforts attempt to give average people a better chance to exercise their democratic right to choose their representatives. When the political parties control redistricting, the opposite tends to happen. Politicians choose their voters.

At Draw the Line's Sept. 19 hearing in St. Paul, Bill Denney of Oakdale urged that the St. Paul-dominated Fourth Congressional District be geographically enlarged to the east, not the north or south, to embrace a population more akin to St. Paul's.

Marian Brown of Apple Valley said she wants south-metro suburbs united in one congressional district, even if that's not advantageous to her political party.

Vaughn Larry of St. Paul begged that poor neighborhoods not be split among numerous legislative districts, lest their concern about rising property taxes be diluted.

That's typical of what's been said at 18 hearings, said Draw the Line program manager David Wheeler. Keep communities intact, put economically and demographically similar communities together, and give minorities and the poor a fair chance to be heard.

More politically competitive districts would be nice, added Arthur Allen of Roseville. Too many safe districts are not good for democracy.

He's right. And too many safe districts is what states get when politicians do the mapmaking, or political parties are the only voices judges hear. Mike Dean of Common Cause Minnesota often says that "you don't know what a good map looks like until you've seen multiple maps."

Between now and their Feb. 21 deadline, may the judges see a great many.

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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