Democrats and Republicans compared each other’s latest congressional redistricting maps to the writings of George Orwell earlier this week after the political parties unveiled proposals ahead of a court date this fall.
But whether either side is engaging in Orwellian “newspeak” or displaying the heavy hand of Big Brother, the competing plans suggest starkly different futures for the next decade’s worth of congressional elections in Colorado.
Earlier this month, a district court judge ordered lawyers for both major parties to file proposed maps by Monday so that other groups will have time to review them and submit their own recommendations before a trial starts in October. Democrats and Republicans sued the state this spring, asking the court to draw congressional boundaries after legislators deadlocked and adjourned without agreeing on a map to reflect changes in population since the last U.S. Census.
Republicans showed their cards first, releasing a map on Friday — dubbed “Minimum Disruption.1” — which leaves the state’s seven congressional districts roughly the way they have looked since a judge drew the lines in response to a 2001 lawsuit after similar legislative gridlock. Other than shifting southeastern Colorado’s Baca County from the 4th Congressional District into the 3rd CD, the GOP map mostly fiddles with boundaries between metro-area districts, which have seen rapid but uneven growth over the last decade.
According to registration figures and rough estimates, both parties would maintain their respective advantages in each congressional district under the Republican plan.
Before Democrats released their own map on Monday, state Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio blasted the GOP for “trying to freeze the status quo” with proposed boundaries he said would cement in place the state’s current four-three split between Republican and Democratic members of Congress.
Instead, Palacio said, Democrats were calling for more competitive seats to better reflect the state’s balanced registration figures. (According to some estimates, Colorado is the most evenly divided state in the nation, with nearly equal numbers of registered Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters.)
“Competitive districts force representatives to pay attention to every voter and every issue, not just those of their political base. And competitive districts reflect Colorado’s political makeup,” Palacio said in a statement, pointing to the state’s partisan split.
Republicans responded that their proposed map inflicts the “slightest amount of violence” to districts Democrats said were fine with them when another judge drew the lines a decade ago. (The current boundaries have produced wild swings among the state’s congressional delegation over the last five elections, with each party holding as many as five seats at different times.)
Later on Monday, the Democrats filed a proposed map that radically alters some existing districts and would create more competitive seats for a pair of suburban Denver-area congressmen from both parties.
The Democratic map shifts nearly all of Larimer County from the 4th Congressional District into the 2nd CD currently dominated by liberal Boulder County. The move could complicate plans for Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, by moving his residence into the 2nd CD, currently represented by Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Polis. Shaffer launched a run this summer against freshman U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, a Yuma Republican, who won the 4th CD back from one-term Democrat Betsy Markey last fall. The Democrats would also move conservative Douglas County into the 4th CD, which would still include Greeley and most of the Eastern Plains, potentially making a Shaffer bid even more uphill.
The map submitted by Democrats would also reconfigure the suburban 6th and 7th CDs, which encircle Denver, changing them from districts that wrap over the northern and southern parts of the metro area into districts anchored on the western and eastern sides of town.
Under the Democratic proposal, both U.S. Reps. Ed Perlmutter, an Applewood Democrat, and Mike Coffman, an Aurora Republican, would see their districts turn more competitive, although Coffman’s seat, held by Republicans since its creation in 1982, would undergo the most marked shift. (Perlmutter’s district was drawn to be nearly equally divided by party registration a decade ago and has been represented by both a Republican and a Democrat in its current configuration, though in recent years Democrats have gained an edge.)
Both parties’ proposed maps would leave the 3rd CD — dominated by Pueblo County and the Western Slope — as a competitive district, at least on paper. Since the lines were last drawn, the seat has changed hands twice between parties. It is currently represented by freshman U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Cortez Republican, who is facing a spirited challenge from state House Minority Leader Sal Pace, D-Pueblo.
Also under both plans, two districts would remain safely in the columns of each party: the heavily Democratic 1st CD, centered on Denver, and the equally Republican 5th CD, based around Colorado Springs.
As soon as both maps were made public, critics started dropping references to Orwell’s 1984, a futuristic novel that envisions a repressive government that crushes all traces of individual freedom.
“The Orwellian newspeak used by the Democrats to attack the Minimum Disruption map is absurd,” lobbed state Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, in a statement. “Their idea of ‘competitive’ is diluting conservative counties across the state with liberal, urban centers and redrawing over 1.7 million Coloradans into new districts that reinstate their majority in Colorado’s congressional delegation.”
Attorney Scott Martinez, representing Democrats in their lawsuit, countered that it is Republicans who are attempting to drown out differences and establish an unwavering majority. He said the Democratic proposal does more to foster competition and deliver more effective representation.
“It’s funny that Sen. Brophy called our map ‘Orwellian’ when his map look like it was drawn in 1984,” quipped Martinez.
“For people who don’t want change, the Republican map is good,” he said. “But I hope those same people don’t plan on upgrading their computer, or upgrading their phone, or changing their TV from black-and-white, because without change, our state and our lives can’t progress.”
Richard Westfall, the lead attorney for Republicans in their lawsuit, said the Democratic proposal makes significant changes that need to be explained.
“They did not file a brief of what they were doing or why the changes they made needed to be made,” said an exasperated Westfall.
He added that the issue is now up to the courts to decide and should not be mired in a political fight.
“I’m not thinking about this politically,” said Westfall, who recently served as general counsel for the state GOP. “We’re now in a judicial exercise. We’re doing this in court and the court should be applying the law, it should be applying the precedent.”
But for candidates and incumbents alike, the exercise is as political as it gets.
Under the Democratic proposal, Coffman’s safe Republican seat could be up for grabs, a development that no doubt delights state Rep. Joe Miklosi, the Denver Democrat who has pledged to move into the new district to run against the Republican. The redrawn 6th CD would include all of Aurora, instead of just the more conservative southern section under the current configuration, but sheds heavily Republican Douglas and Elbert counties.
Coffman told The Colorado Statesman he is ready to fight for his seat no matter what the courts decide.
“I’m not a lawyer, so I’ll let the attorneys sort out the maps,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Statesman. “Whatever happens, I’m a Marine Corps combat veteran, and I look forward to running a tough race in whatever district I’m in.”
Miklosi reacted with similar aplomb to the competing proposals, though it was clear he prefers the one submitted by Democrats.
“A competitive 6th Congressional District would be a big win for all Coloradoans because it would require politicians like Mr. Coffman to listen to all voices in the community and not just the Tea Party,” Miklosi wrote in an e-mail to The Statesman.
Perlmutter’s seat — which he won handily despite a strong challenge from Republican Ryan Frazier last fall — would shed heavily Democratic precincts in Adams County and pick up more Republican neighborhoods in south Jefferson County, but Democrats argued they aren’t throwing the three-term congressman to the wolves but are merely trying to establish more competitive seats statewide.
“We take a balanced approach,” said Martinez. “We wanted to create competitive districts where you could put similar communities together, but we didn’t want to fracture communities to create competitive districts. We didn’t want to fracture communities to artificially create competitiveness, and this map absolutely strikes that balance.”
A spokeswoman for Perlmutter said her boss is declining to comment because redistricting is currently before the court.
State Republican officials have said to expect strong challengers against incumbent congressional Democrats next year but not to look for them until the maps are final.
Meanwhile, Shaffer on Monday released a statement saying he is moving ahead with his challenge to Gardner despite his own party’s proposal to draw him out of his own district.
“It’s impossible to predict what a court will ultimately decide, but I’m confident we’ll end up with a map that’s fair and competitive,” Shaffer said in the statement. “I believe that means Longmont will remain in the 4th Congressional District.”
It might not wind up being a problem for Shaffer however the lines are drawn, as Colorado law doesn’t require congressional candidates to live in their districts, merely to be residents of the state. (In 2002 former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez successfully ran for the new 7th CD even though he lived outside the district.)
Shaffer went on to take a jab at Gardner.
“I’m running for the 4th CD because Congressman Cory Gardner has joined with the right wing ideologues in risking the full faith and credit of this country, in voting to eliminate Medicare as we know it, and in an all out assault on a woman’s right to make her own medical decisions,” he said.
Gardner told The Statesman to contact his campaign manager, but the operative didn’t return a request for comment by press time.
Officials representing Larimer and Douglas counties took aim at the Democratic proposal, saying they like their current congressional districts and don’t want to get moved into others.
Douglas County commissioners were unanimous in their desire to keep the county intact within the 6th CD.
“The proposed, new map would cause substantial disruption to Douglas County as it proposes that Douglas County would be entirely segregated and separated from the Denver Metropolitan area,” the board wrote in a statement. “Every community with similar interests to those of the citizens of Douglas County in the areas of economic development, water and transportation interests has been ignored.”
Larimer County Commissioner Steve Johnson, a Fort Collins Republican who formerly served in the state legislature, called the proposal by Democrats to lump his county in with Boulder “laughable,” adding that he doesn’t believe the court will side with that proposal.
“After I stopped laughing, I kind of thought that they were insane,” he said. “Larimer County and Weld (County) have been together in a congressional district for the 30 years I have lived here and share a lot of communities of interest.”
Attorneys representing seven Democrats and seven Republicans — residents of each congressional district — will argue over the proposed maps in a trial set to begin on Oct. 17 in Denver District Court. Other organizations representing a variety of interests plan to file their own proposals with the court in coming weeks.
— Statesman senior reporter Ernest Luning contributed to this story.