Former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, vice-chairman of the commission to redraw Colorado’s legislative districts, accused Republicans on Monday of attempting to create a “supermajority” by including non-voting minority jail populations in drawing communities of interest.
Webb directed his comments at fellow Reapportionment Commission member Mario Nicolais, Republican, who has proposed controversial House district maps for Aurora and Arapahoe County that have Democrats incensed over the possibility of losing control of the House for the next 10 years. Republicans currently control the state House by only one seat, and Democrats have a five-person majority in the Senate.
An unapologetic Webb verbally attacked Nicolais early during this week’s Reapportionment Commission meeting, stopping short of calling his fellow commissioner racist, but suggesting an “insensitive” approach to drawing minority communities of interest. Webb said that Nicolais used the Arapahoe County Jail population and its “thousands of black and brown inmates” to skew Latino and African American voting blocs.
But Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson, in emails to legislators the following day, disputed Webb’s figures. Based on figures that he provided on the ethnic breakdown of the prison population, if the prison were excluded the minority population in the district would stay exactly the same, slightly less than 20 percent.
As of July 26, the jail had an inmate population of 1,208, including 693 white inmates, accounting for approximately 58 percent of the population; 415 black inmates, accounting for 34 percent of the population; 85 Hispanic inmates, accounting for 7 percent of the population; 10 Asian-Pacific inmates, accounting for 0.8 percent of the population; and three Native American inmates, accounting for 0.2 percent of the population. Another two inmates are listed as unknown, according to Capt. Vince Sauter, who oversees the Arapahoe County Jail.
Webb suggested that Republicans account for a 20 percent minority House District 37 in southern Aurora only by counting the jail population. Webb said the district is really overwhelmingly non-minority, and accused Republicans of using non-voting minority inmates to draw GOP-favorable districts.
“While counted for the Census, these inmates are certainly not voting for the candidate of their choice nor influencing the outcome of the election,” Webb said in his prepared remarks. “At best, the proponents of the alternative plan are so out-of-touch with the minority community that their assertions could be categorized as insensitive. At worst, the proponents unapologetically used the minority community as pawns for political advantage.”
Webb did not return several calls by The Colorado Statesman to elaborate on his initial comments after the reapportionment commission meeting.
Asked if he believed Webb was implying that he was taking a biased approach to drawing minority communities of interest, Nicolais chuckled. He said he would review the jail population numbers, but denied using a minority jail population as “pawns” in some political game.
“I did not draw that district with the idea of hiding a population, it was drawn basically with what we got from the Census,” said Nicolais.
He cautioned against members of the commission publicly attacking individual colleagues on the commission.
“We do have to stay away from some of the very direct attacks against each other,” continued Nicolais. “I think [Webb] has some very legitimate concerns, so I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt…”
But Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, one of only two black lawmakers in the Legislature, believes Republicans are skewing minority voting blocs to design Republican advantages in the Denver metro area. Fields’ House District 42 would only contain nine of her original precincts, and the proposed map pushes her to the far eastern portion of Aurora. The commission at its July 18 meeting on a Republican party-line vote adopted the map. Unaffiliated chairman of the commission, Mario Carrera, voted with Republicans to give the proposal a 6-5 advantage.
Fields believes under the Republican proposal, there would be less representation for communities of interest within Aurora and HD 42, especially for Hispanic and African American populations. She feels Republicans are in fact attempting to create an advantage for their party by including non-voting minority inmate populations.
“That move is deceptive, it’s manipulative, and it’s disingenuous,” said Fields. “If they’re trying to do those kind of things in order to make sure that they maintain the majority in the House, if that’s a tactic that they’re using, then I’m appalled.”
Rep. Angela Williams, D-Denver, whose House District 7 would not be affected by the reapportionment proposals, is raising larger concerns over limiting representation for communities of color in the Legislature. Williams, who is the second of two African American lawmakers at the Capitol, said under the Republican proposal, minority voting blocs, especially African American voters, would be denied representation.
“It is a reality at this point, and not only in the Latino community, but within the African American community,” she said. “This is a democracy, and we’re trying to be fair, and we’re trying to make sure everyone has an opportunity to make sure their communities are represented.”
Williams applauded Webb for catching the use of the Arapahoe County Jail population, calling the Republican proposal “hideous, unacceptable and appalling.”
“If [Nicolais] could have gotten away with it, and had we not had Commissioner Webb to represent and to try and show that we can create competitive districts all over our state, that probably would have never been caught,” said Williams. “It just shows you the need to have proper representation…”
Webb also was critical of Republicans for attempting to protect Latino incumbent Rep. Robert Ramirez, R-Westminster, of House District 29. Republicans contend that the district is a Hispanic community of interest, despite its Latino population of less than 10 percent. Ramirez is the only Republican Latino lawmaker serving at the Capitol. Webb suggested that Republicans are out to protect incumbents, not communities of interest.
“When drawing legislative districts our charge is not to protect incumbents, regardless of race or ethnicity,” said Webb. “There is no constitutional mandate to do so. When we draw districts that have a high minority population, it is done so to protect the minority community of interest, a community particularly singled out in our constitution mandate.”
Ramirez fired back on Tuesday, arguing that Commissioner Webb should follow his own advice, noting that during earlier reapportionment debate, Democrats had sought to protect incumbent Latino Reps. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, and Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, from being placed in the same district. Democrats had argued that it would be unfair to Latinos. Ramirez charged that Democrats have the same interests in protecting their incumbents.
“You’re going to say that you’re hurting Pabon and Duran, yet they’re still a Latino that would be representing the minorities in that community?” Ramirez said in questioning Webb’s logic.
Ramirez went on to criticize Democrats for their proposal in the Denver metro area, arguing that under one Democratic map, he would have been drawn out of HD 29.
“That map was a very biased, unrealistic map,” Ramirez said.
Nicolais acknowledged that the reapportionment process can be filled with partisan bickering, but said the commission is still focused on drawing fair maps for the state, not political parties.
“We’re more likely though this cauldron to come up with a good map for the entire state, and that’s what we’re charged with,” said Nicolais. “Rather than having one party control the process on one side or the other, this is the way to do it.”