Redistricting -- it's like musical chairs, with the chairs in motion

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 23, 2012 - 6:57 PM

This week's redistricting will get candidates hopping -- to defend their loyalties, at least.

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It's redistricting week. That means there's been more fussing in the last 48 hours about where Minnesota politicians live than about what they think or how they vote.

The new court-ordered congressional and legislative district maps released Tuesday brought to the fore an odd inconsistency: Legislative candidates are required to reside in the districts they aspire to represent for at least six months prior to Election Day. Congressional candidates are not.

That's why U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann could utter unruffled assurances Tuesday that she will run this year in the Sixth District -- even though she lives in the new Fourth.

A legislator who found herself in Bachmann's situation might have been racing to meet a real-estate agent on Tuesday afternoon, not sharing fond memories with reporters about her school days at Anoka High. Will she move back to Anoka, she was asked? She wouldn't say. She didn't have to.

DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin tried his best to make Sixth District voters care about the GOP congresswoman's Minnesota address.

"It would be a departure from the past if Rep. Bachmann did not move into the district," he said. "It goes to the character of the elected official. Is she more interested in serving in Washington than she is in the people she represents?"

Martin's attempt to score a talking point would have seemed less feeble if the DFL had a Sixth District resident itching to run against Bachmann. He conceded that he does not, though he "expects someone to jump in soon." The new map tints the Sixth a deeper shade of Republican red. Martin's candidate recruitment difficulty likely just got worse.

I caught up with last cycle's Sixth District DFL candidate at her new hometown -- Duluth. Tarryl Clark, former state senator from St. Cloud, is now the candidate striving to unseat Eighth District GOP freshman Rep. Chip Cravaack.

The Fourth District may have been the only one of Minnesota's eight to wind up with two resident members of Congress. But the Eighth, not the Fourth, is where home addresses could rival Social Security and taxes as campaign battle themes this fall.

Clark's recent relocation is only part of the reason that residency politics looms large in the Eighth. "Where do you live?" was already a fighting question in 2010.

Cravaack's 2010 indictment of the dean of the state's delegation, Rep. James Oberstar, was that through 36 years in Congress, he had lost touch with northeastern Minnesota. The native of West Virginia did a good job convincing voters that the native of Chisholm was no longer "one of them."

Six months after taking office, Cravaack announced that his wife and two sons were moving to New Hampshire to be closer to her job in Boston, and that he would join them most Sundays. He would spend Saturdays and congressional breaks in Minnesota.

The North East Area Labor Council demonstrated with a string of seven rallies throughout the district yesterday how to make political use of the Cravaack family's move. "No matter where redistricting lines are drawn, New Hampshire is not Minnesota," read the council's release.

But before a DFL candidate can give that line a try, he or she has to win what is now a three-way contest for the DFL spot on the November ballot. Residency figures in that race, too.

Clark isn't the only candidate with a Sixth District connection. Rick Nolan, the winner of the DFL's Feb. 7 precinct caucus straw poll, represented an earlier version of the Sixth in Congress for three terms, from 1974 to 1980. He also lived in St. Paul when he headed the state World Trade Center in the 1980s.

But Nolan talks about his longtime home "where the Little Pine and Big Pine Rivers come together" in Crow Wing County in the loving tones of a politician trying to score a point.

Former Duluth City Council Member Jeff Anderson boasts about his family's four generations in northeastern Minnesota, and his own history: Other than one year in college and two stateside military assignments, he's been in the Eighth District for all of his nearly 35 years.

Does that matter? "Absolutely," Anderson said. "If you don't have family and history in a district, what connection do you have?"

DFL convention delegates are bound to hear a version of that argument. My guess is that DFL primary voters will be treated to it, too. This race looks primary-bound.

Clark has the richest campaign bankroll to date, and her 2010 fundraising connections could keep her in the funding lead. That means voters could become quite familiar with her response to her rivals' residency remarks.

"Lines on a map are arbitrary, whether the courts or somebody else draws them," she said Wednesday. "The real line, the line that matters, is where do you stand? Are you actually with seniors, protecting Social Security and Medicare? Are you willing to do the things that will provide opportunity for our kids? Are you behind the critical transportation investments we need?

"What's important is to have someone there fighting for you. That's what really matters to people -- not where somebody lives."

That argument was intended for Eighth District consumption. But I think it has another application this week. Potentially roaming legislators, take note: Here's how defense is played in the game of residency politics.

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. 

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