POSTED ON JULY 13, 2011:
On the Line
It's messy, but redistricting means everything
This is a tale of two houses -- actually, a towering limestone duplex of sorts, located at NW 23rd and Lincoln Blvd., just up the road from downtown Oklahoma City.
For four months each year, from February through May, 149 women and men take up residence there -- 101 on the west side, 48 on the east -- both sides mostly operating with their own agendas, schedules and activities.
Like many neighbors, they frequently visit across the marbled fence, sharing dreams, exchanging ideas and embarking on joint projects.
Other times, though, it's as if the two households are galaxies -- not mere feet -- apart, their approaches to problem solving and completing tasks so vastly different as to defy logic.
In fact, all too often you're left wondering: what were they thinking?
Such was the case this year when the part-time inhabitants -- also known as your duly elected senators and representatives -- took up the once-a-decade task of redrawing the state's House and Senate district boundaries.
The two chambers pursued radically different strategies to complete their tasks and ended up with radically different results: The House approach was widely praised for its cost-effectiveness and bipartisanship; the Senate ... not so much.
And that's why we (yes, the taxpayers are footing the bill to defend the plan) are now headed to the state Supreme Court, where justices are being asked to determine the constitutionality of a Senate reapportionment plan that would be mystifying except for one thing: partisan politics.
"We don't have to prove that it was done for a political purpose," noted Oklahoma City Attorney Mark Hammons, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of state Sen. Jim Wilson, D-Tahlequah. "But it sure looks like it was done for a political purpose."
In theory, reapportionment is an exercise in the great American principle of one-man, one-vote: Analyzing the latest Census data, lawmakers redraw the maps to ensure each of the state's legislative districts are as equally populated as possible -- this time, roughly 78,000 in each Senate and 37,000 in each House district.
But nothing in the legislative process is that simple or noble, of course -- nor should it necessarily be.
Lawmakers aren't just moving pieces on a chessboard, they're impacting people's lives, other governments (cities and counties), school districts, and what are known as "communities of interest."
This may seem to be so much inside baseball, but it's not. It's incredibly important. It's about the influence rank-and-file citizens can hope to exert in a process that's already stacked against them.
Think an average Joe can compete on even footing against a phalanx of well-heeled special interests that write big campaign checks, provide NBA and college football tickets, arrange golf outings and wine-and-dine legislators? Think again.
Protecting "communities of interest" is an important way to level the playing field -- at least somewhat. The everyday residents of Tahlequah or Muskogee, for example, are better positioned to influence their lawmakers if kept in one district, rather than spread into several, their once-married voices dispersed.
This is where the tale of two houses comes in: Redistricting can be a messy business, since adding or subtracting just a few key precincts can all assure victory or defeat for officeholders. But the House managed to adopt a plan that won bipartisan praise -- and cost the taxpayers far less, on a per legislator basis -- than the Senate.
Now some cynics will argue that both Republicans and Democrats embraced the House map because it easily could be dubbed The Incumbent Protection Act of 2011. Everybody pretty much got what they wanted, incumbents feel good about their chances for re-election, let's all just gather 'round and sing "Kumbaya."
The problem with the Senate plan is that pure partisan politics trumped sound public policy, giving Wilson an opening to challenge its constitutionality. Redistricting is always, first and foremost, about enhancing the power of the majority party. But you have to be somewhat sophisticated about it -- not overtly arrogant.
The Senate's first mistake was to hire an outside political consultant to shepherd the process. The House took care of matters in-house. The consultant, Karl Ahlgren, is devoted to electing Republicans. By definition that means screwing Democrats -- especially if one of the Democrats (Sen. Tom Adelson) battled your firm's client, Dewey Bartlett, in the last Tulsa mayor's race.
When you're thinking about settling scores (under the new plan, Adelson's residence is in Republican Sen. Brian Crain's district), shoring up vulnerable GOP incumbents and diminishing Democratic chances, you're probably not thinking much about the rank-and-file folks in north Tulsa or northeast Oklahoma City (both heavily minority areas) or keeping the Cherokee Nation capital in one district.
It also was a tidy payday (thank you, taxpayers) for Ahlgren, who by some accounts earned $127K-plus for his efforts the last two years -- an especially nice tide-me-over in a non-campaign year. All told, the Senate spent roughly twice as much developing its redistricting plan ($3,400-plus per senator) as the House ($1,700-plus per representative).
And yet the Senate plan is the one in the constitutional crosshairs.
Wilson is a liberal Democrat whose frustration with the GOP majority spilled over repeatedly last session. But he can legitimately claim -- and he does -- that this is not about him, it's about the people: Because of term limits, next year is his last in the Senate. Even if his lawsuit is successful, he won't stand to benefit from it.
Wilson and his attorney, Hammons, pointed out what they contend are several areas where the Senate plan violates the state Constitution, which interestingly only establishes specific requirements for drawing Senate -- not House -- districts.
And that doesn't even take into account whether changes to minority districts in Tulsa (Sen. Judy Eason McIntyre) and Oklahoma City (Sen. Constance Johnson) comply with the Voting Rights Act -- something that would have to be determined by the federal courts (Johnson has discussed filing such a complaint).
This is believed to be the first time a state Senate redistricting plan has ever been challenged under the constitutional provision. If the Supreme Court throws out the plan, the matter would be referred to a six-member redistricting commission comprised of one Republican and one Democrat appointed by the governor, House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem. The lieutenant governor, Republican Todd Lamb, would serve as chairman, but is a non-voting member.
No matter which party's in power, it's impossible to remove partisan politics from redistricting, at least so long as the Legislature is drawing the lines. But that doesn't mean rank-and-file Oklahomans should just shrug their shoulders and accept the venality.
I'm hardly enamored with the idea of legislating by initiative, but don't be surprised if voters -- who agreed last year to change the makeup of the redistricting commission -- get a chance in the not too distant future to decide whether to take the process out of the Legislature's hands altogether.
--(Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; okobserver.net)
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