Gerrymandering lives on

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Elbridge Gerry was just doing what came naturally

By Hal Rhodes

Elbridge Gerry had quite a life. Born on July 17, 1744, in Marblehead, Mass., he died 70 years later in Washington, D.C.
In the intervening years, Gerry graduated from Harvard University, where he immersed himself in classical studies.
A decade later, he was serving in the Colonial House of Delegates before going on to become a member of the Continental Congress.
It would be a dazzling political career that put Elbridge Gerry among that select group of American patriots who signed the Declaration of Independence and later among those who served in the new nation’s First and Second Congresses.
His final triumph came in 1812, when he was elected vice president of the United States under President James Madison.
Yet for all the great moments in American history of which he was part, Gerry is probably best remembered for actions he took during his brief stint (1810-1811) as governor of Massachusetts.
Then, as now, the states were redistricting their legislatures and other elective bodies following a new census.
Gerry was a staunch
anti-Federalist, and he was determined to maximize his party’s prospects in future elections by drawing up legislative districts in ways beneficial to that political party.  The  boundaries of one such district were so contorted as to ramble tortuously hither and yon throughout whole chunks of the state of Massachusetts.
It was a patently partisan contrivance, and it raised eyebrows and universal derision from Gerry’s Federalist critics, one of whom likened its appearance to that of a salamander.
Thus did the term “gerrymander” enter into the American political lexicon, ever thereafter to be resurrected when reapportionment seasons rolled around in the decades and centuries to follow.
Gerry was simply doing what politicians had done before him and have done ever since: Using his powers to safeguard his party’s hold on elective offices in future elections.
Today federal and state laws, along with court decisions, beginning in the 1970’s, make it more difficult for lawmakers and governors to engineer districts as wildly configured as they were in Elbridge Gerry’s day.
Still, the impulse to gerrymander for partisan reasons is nigh irresistible among partisan politicos when redistricting time is upon them.
In states like Texas and Florida, where the legislatures and governors are of the same party — Republican, as it turns out, gerrymandering has been a wink-and-nod norm in recent years, and the Democrats invariably haul them into court seeking relief under some laws or court precedents.
In New Mexico, this year and in 2001, the governors have been Republican while the legislatures have been under Democratic control.
So what we’ve gotten for the past two go-rounds have basically been political standoffs.   
Democratic lawmakers grind out redistricting measures favorable to their interests … not blatantly favorable, but favorable nonetheless, whereupon the Republican governors veto the Dems’ offerings and proffer proposals of their own that are favorable to their party’s interests … again.
Not blatantly so but favorable nonetheless.
Whereupon the whole affair ends up in court and redistricting becomes a judicial function.
This year, New Mexicans will witness something rather novel in the tradition of judicial reapportionment precisely because the state House of Representatives failed to pass out any kind of redistricting measure for the state’s three seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Thus some court is going to find itself redistricting New Mexico’s U.S. House seats from scratch.
Of course, judges are known to have political sympathies capable of manifesting themselves when it becomes their responsibility to remap districts, giving rise to what has been called judicial gerrymandering.
Old Elbridge would probably tell us that they’re just doing what comes naturally.

Hal Rhodes
© 2011 New Mexico News Services