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Rethinking redistricting process

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A few moments of clarity in a fractious session

By Sherry Robinson

In all the bombast and posturing of the recently concluded special legislative session for redistricting, there were moments of clarity.
One of the best was an exchange between two of the house’s most effective representatives, who also happen to be the majority and minority floor leaders – Reps. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, and Tom Taylor, R-Farmington.
Martinez, rarely ruffled, possesses a fine analytical mind. Taylor, smart and personable, possesses an extra measure of common sense, which can be a rare quality in the Roundhouse.
Both try to see the other’s side of things.
Redistricting is the painful, once-a-decade exercise of redistributing political districts to match the redistributed population.
Underlying the process is a trend that should sadden us all – the inexorable emptying of rural areas as people gravitate to cities, which are already scrambling to find more water and build more roads and schools.
So you begin with an urban demand for their rightful seats and the rural reflex to protect what they’ve got.
Taylor was presenting in committee a House redistricting bill he hoped could be “a template for compromise.”
The Republican approach was to collapse districts with the greatest population loss and move them to Albuquerque’s West Side and Rio Rancho.
They would retain the current 37-33 split between Democrats and Republicans, “keep incumbents in their districts,” account for future growth, and generally change districts as little as possible.
But four pairs of incumbents would have to face off in the next election.
Martinez observed: “Leader Taylor works from a conceptual process. On our side, each member looked at their districts and communities of interest. Between the conceptual and the communities may lie the middle.”
Translation: Taylor began with the big-picture view and certain long-term goals, and Republicans fell in line behind it.
The Democrats worked district by district, community by community, which required an enormous amount of negotiating in caucus.
Republicans typically observe an unfailing party discipline. The Democrats find party discipline a little more, uh, challenging.
It took Democrats longer to come up with a consensus plan. Keep in mind that it’s not easy to divide the state 70 ways.
Frustrated Republicans complained about the session’s pace and demanded that standing committees meet to hear the governor’s bills.
Besides the fact that Dems resented bills unrelated to redistricting, they were still hunched over maps and not available to sit in committees.
Once Dems finally agree on a direction, it’s full speed ahead.
Their bill zipped through committee and was on the floor by the time Republicans began to talk up their compromise, and most Dems hadn’t seen the proposal.
Was anybody seriously trying to compromise? Maybe, but in the end the Democrats’ bill favored Democrats, the Republicans’ bill favored Republicans, and a veto of the majority party’s bill was a foregone conclusion.
Most legislators began with low expectations. As one lawmaker told me, “No matter what we do, we’re going to end up in court.”
It says something that the session opened with a law professor advising them on how the courts might proceed.
Ten years ago, after a veto, the court didn’t start from scratch but neither did it begin with legislative bills.
It did, however use the final bills as templates and also heard testimony, so the session wasn’t a total waste of time.
In every state redistricting is contentious. In many it will end up in court and not finish until 2014.
Some states have bipartisan redistricting commissions that work very well – and it’s undoubtedly cheaper than keeping 112 lawmakers in Santa Fe for 21 days.
It’s time to rethink how we do this.

Sherry Robinson
© New Mexico News Services 2011