In The News
It’s state politics that turn changes ugly
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Posted December 14, 2011
The best known national story about redistricting occurred quite naturally in Massachusetts, where the population shifts and growths in the US Census changed almost half the area served by 71 year old Barney Frank in the US House.
Frank is one of the Democrats' progressive lions who survived his own scandals decades ago to emerge as a noted wit, acerbic moral touchstone and fiscal expert. But he also takes seriously that citizens deserve to know their incumbent and vice versa, so he looked hard at whether he could do a good job for a district that after the 2010 census included 325,000 people who never before had a chance to know him or vote for him. Frank was openly analytical. He hates raising money and he would need a lot. He loves to talk, but he would have to campaign hard among newbie’s. So he announced his departure, noting that at least in retirement “I don't have to pretend to be nice to people I don't like.
There were salutes all around for his service and for accepting change without rancor.
Back in the city of Milwaukee, consider in contrast the reaction of Ald. Bob Donovan when the census added a mighty growth of Latinos to his local district and took away some low-hanging fruit of conservative households.
His first reaction was to fret and fight some of the obvious change, then to fume to other members of the Common Council about "politics" and this month to lay a lot of money into three-fold brochures and door-drops to beef up his re-election campaign -- because this time he is facing some articulate opponents and has to defend a pretty lame track record.
To the south of his borders, there was a different reaction - enthusiasm and welcome. County of Milwaukee Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic even introduced the resolution that would make her a minority white candidate in a majority Hispanic district.
High time to recognize change, said Dimitrijevic, whose politics and issues dovetail with those of Voces de La Frontera and other Latino groups that support her re-election. In fact she’s going door to door campaigning with Latino officials. (It is the worst kept secret in Milwaukee politics that she is aiming not just for re-election but also for her peers to pick her as the new County Board chairman, now that Lee Holloway has announced his retirement.)
Last summer there was another enthusiastic even if career-destructive embrace of the growth of Hispanic citizens at the Milwaukee school board, led by a cry of "Si Si pueda!" from longtime school board member Peter Blewett when the first predominantly Hispanic district was redrawn to match the new population information.
But that was District 6, where Blewett has served on the school board for a decade. And the new map moves his house out of his district into that of fellow board member Annie Woodward, leaving him the horrible choice in 2013 to run against her in a heavily African American area.
He could have fought rather than lead the change charge, but "I'm imagining 10 years down the road," Blewett explained. "I'd rather be an example of what elected officials should do."
Only a few months ago, the veteran liberal activist was unsure of a future path, but by December he had decided, announcing his candidacy for a county supervisory district that neatly meshes with the eastern half of his old school board district. Yes, he's running for the seat being abandoned by Holloway, cheerfully entering a race against six other candidates. And with his entry and experience, he's already a leading contender.
Such is the inevitable if sometimes wounding side of natural redistricting. For the nasty side we have to turn to state politics, and this one is a doozie.
Ostensibly, when the state legislature adjusts its own and US House district maps, it is for balance, to protect minority rights and ideally to encourage natural boundaries and competitiveness. So the public would like to think but frankly, it’s mostly about partisan opportunity. Everyone on the inside understands that and looks away - unless the results are too warped, fabricated and blatantly politicized.
That happened when the GOP majority jammed through new maps for November 2012 elections - and now, faced with recalls of several GOP state senators, wants the new districts put in place immediately to protect themselves.
Even Republican observers know the maps are extreme, only they tend to chuckle gleefully at the legal snookery executed by their side. But here come the judges with some pointed questions about the two federal lawsuits and other maneuvers in state courts. Putting lawyerly niceties aside, the key questions may well be: “Were these insiders instructed to arrange the results so Democratic could never regain control?”
Quite naturally, the judges want to ask the people who did the maps. The Republicans scrambled mightily with every legal trick they could muster to keep them from being deposed.
The federal court is now demanding the key figures testify, which moves the cases from longshots -- since the courts tend to defer to the people's elected representatives, the legislature, on such issues -- to better than even money.
Even the threat of this GOP redistricting has affected the April nonpartisan election and colored next November. But now some question marks are creeping in.
"Three months ago I wouldn't have given the federal challenges more than a 30% chance," one lawyer told me. "Now I think it's likely the federal court will hear it through."