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If you thought Minnesota’s budget battles were ugly, wait till you see redistricting’s political infighting

If you thought the political battles over the state’s budget woes have been ugly, wait until you get a whiff of the partisan clawing that can come with redistricting.

That once-a-decade process began Friday as a handful of legislators met at the state Capitol to talk over some very basic stuff. It was a bland meeting, with consensus among the four — two Republicans, two DFLers — quickly reached to seek release of legislative funding to purchase $35,000 worth of software immediately, rather than waiting until next year when the cost will be higher.

In should be noted that a time when every dollar matters mightily, there were no doughnuts served at the meeting.

“Very Spartan,” said Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park, of the affable meeting.

Simon was at the meeting in his role as a member of a subcommittee of the Legislative Coordinating Commission. Others at the subcommittee meeting were Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, and Sens. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, and Chris Gerlach, R-Apple Valley.

Rep. Steve Simon
Rep. Steve Simon

Surprise — redistricting cost actually cheaper than in past
Additionally, it’s worth noting that the process of redistricting, which requires staff and computers, will be less expensive now than two decades ago. Twenty years ago, it cost Minnesota $1 million to draw a legislative map. A decade ago, it cost $600,000. This time around, it’s expected to cost $250,000.

The ever-falling price of technology is responsible for the ever-increasing savings.

For the moment, the tumult and shouting that typically accompanies redistricting seems far away.

The U.S. Census, the basis for redrawing every state’s political maps, will be conducted starting April 1. The data from the census won’t be available until the end of 2010. The map drawing, for both state legislative districts and congressional districts, will be done in 2011 and must be completed in time for the 2012 elections.

There is a chance that a new system for drawing those contentious maps will be used in Minnesota this time around.

Historically, the Legislature has tried its hand at creating the districts, and historically, those efforts have ended up in the courts.

A new way to do redistricting?
This time, there’s a movement afoot to have judges be involved at the front end of the process. The state’s Senate already has approved a plan to put a panel of five retired judges in charge of redistricting. That approach is expected to be discussed on the floor of the House in the upcoming session.

Under this plan, each of the four party caucuses — two from House, two from Senate — would appoint a judge and those four would select the fifth member. The plan has been pushed by former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson and former Vice President Walter Mondale.

Approval of the judge’s work still would lie with the Legislature. If lawmakers reject the work of the judges, then the redistricting task would fall back to them, and eventually the governor, who could veto the final product.

The sexy issue in all of this is congressional districting.

There is a chance that Minnesota could lose a congressional seat because of shifts in population among states. If that becomes a reality, how would a new map be drawn?

Even if the state doesn’t lose a seat, population shifts within the state — such as more people moving from Greater Minnesota to the metro area — could imperil the careers of 6th District Rep. Michele Bachmann or the two Twin Cities representatives — the 5th District’s Keith Ellison or the 4th District’s Betty McCollum?

Republicans, you see, would love to draw a map that would put Minneapolis and St. Paul into a single district, which, of course, would doom either Ellison or McCollum. And, assuming Bachmann wins again in the fall, DFLers would love to do some doodling with the current 6th District lines that would enable them to turn her into a full-time talk show host.

By the way, Michael Brodkorb, the deputy chairman of the state Republican Party, is convinced the only reason Sen. Tarryl Clark jumped into the 6th District Congressional race against Bachmann this year is to set herself up for a run in a newly constituted 6th District in 2012.

Michael Brodkorb
Michael Brodkorb

“I think she believes that there’ll be a new, central Minnesota district in 2012,” said Brodkorb. “Why else would she run against the 8,000-pound gorilla [Bachmann]?”

Of course, the Clark campaign isn’t buying into that presumption.

‘Bare-knuckle politics’?
Brodkorb, a Republican analyst in the redistricting of 10 years ago, attended Friday’s meeting. He’s convinced that the process will be filled with “bare-knuckle politics.”

He’s constantly telling Republicans that redistricting is one of the most powerful reasons that Republicans must keep one of their own in the governor’s mansion.

“If Democrats have the governor and both legislative bodies, they’d draw a map that would drive us out of existence,” Brodkorb said.

Ten years ago, it should be noted, the Independence Party’s Jesse Ventura was governor, Republicans controlled the House and DFLers controlled the Senate. Even in that atmosphere, the courts ended up playing the major role in redistricting.

But even if one party did control all three political power points, the minority party or even concerned citizens could sue if the resulting map isn’t deemed fair.

Simon doesn’t believe that the process has to end in political bloodshed.

“I’ve never been a part of it,” said Simon, “but I’ve talked to people who say it doesn’t have to devolve into a hyper-partisan cage match.”

Neither the House nor Senate has named members who will participate in the map drawing.

But no matter if it’s pols or judges creating the districts, career-changing lines will have to be drawn based on census data. Ten years ago, 18 of 67 state senators could have ended up pitted against each other because of changing district lines and 34 of the 134 state reps could have ended up going head to head.

In many of those cases, legislators either retired or moved to new districts to avoid the competition.

And 10 years ago, the new political map also ended up creating chaos for two legislators. 2nd District incumbent Mark Kennedy, a Republican, found himself living at the edge of the newly created 6th, where he won re-election. Meantime, 6th District Rep. Bill Luther, a DFLer, moved to a newly drawn 2nd District, which was filled with conservatives from southern suburbs, and lost to John Kline, who Luther twice had defeated in what had been the old 6th District.

“This is an insiders’ game,” said Brodkorb of redistricting, “but it has huge impact.”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by dan buechler on 12/22/2009 - 02:48 pm.

    Big political story and no commentators yet ‘cept me. The StarTribune had a poll yesterday on the biggest polital story of the decade with 60% choosing Wellstone’s death and 20% choosing the 2008/2009 senate recount. Could you imagine the very real difference there would have been had Coleman won (and I can 99.9% guarantee you he would not have crossed the aisle on healthcare). Anyways the devil is in the details and keep writing on redistricting. I imagine if you had headlined Bachmann more commentators would have rushed to their keypads.

  2. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 12/22/2009 - 04:50 pm.

    I’ll rush to my keypad to say how great an idea I think the use of retired judges is. They’ll keep the process as non-partisan as possible.

  3. Submitted by Frank Neubecker on 12/22/2009 - 06:18 pm.

    I always like to throw this link out there when redistricting comes up

  4. Submitted by Luke Hosfield on 12/23/2009 - 01:17 am.

    I enjoyed this article. I’m glad to see some reforms are (hopefully) being seriously considered. I would say though, the author only focuses on the political battling that goes on in redistricting. The author, I believe, should report on the social consequences of disenfranchising entire communities by drawing boundaries that suit politician’s electoral interests but usually ignore social, cultural and ethnic boundaries that truly unite us as communities.

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