Republicans were fuming this week after a state commission approved Democratic-sponsored legislative maps that draw at least five pairs of incumbent GOP lawmakers into the same seats.
The battle to set the next decade’s state House and Senate district lines came to a head in a matter of hours starting late Sunday night. And when the dust had settled, Republicans — who hold the same number of seats as Democrats on the panel — complained the independent chairman of the commission repeatedly sided with Democrats to fudge submission deadlines, shut down meaningful debate and steamroll the opposition with a proposal even some critics concede will likely pass muster with the courts.
It was the second time the commission has voted to send a set of maps to the state Supreme Court for review, a procedure established by the state constitution. Earlier this month, the court rejected the first proposal and ordered the commission to try again — but to split as few counties as possible, a legal requirement the court said the commission hadn’t met.
“They outfoxed us,” said Colorado College political science professor Robert Loevy, one of the Colorado Reapportionment Commission’s five Republican members, soon after his side came up short in the last of a series of 6-5 votes.
Like Republicans, Democrats hold five seats on the panel, with the swing vote belonging to the commission’s chairman and lone unaffiliated member, broadcast executive Mario Carrera.
Although Carrera won praise from both sides of the aisle during round after round of the lengthy reapportionment process — beginning in April when the governor, legislative leaders and the high court’s chief justice appointed commissioners — he drew particularly venomous attacks from Republicans following this week’s developments.
Republican commissioner Mario Nicolais derided Carrera as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and called the chairman a liar on Monday after Carrera sided with Democrats on vote after vote. In addition to the votes approving the maps on Tuesday, Carrera cast the decisive vote on a number of procedural questions, including ones that kept Republicans from proposing amendments to the Democratic maps and denied GOP commissioners the chance to submit a minority report to the Supreme Court.
It was Carrera who drafted a pair of compromise maps that won bipartisan approval from commissioners last month, but the court demanded new maps after Republicans filed a flurry of objections. Justices ordered the panel to do a better job satisfying a constitutional requirement that counties remain intact whenever possible.
One GOP operative even called on Carrera to step down from his post running Entravision Communications Colorado, a company that operates Spanish-language television and radio stations.
Comparing Carrera to former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann — who was suspended with pay for two days and eventually moved on to another network after it was revealed he’d made political donations — Compass Colorado president Tyler Q. Houlton said Carrera’s record of contributing to Democratic candidates while serving on the reapportionment commission should disqualify him from the media-related position.
“This corrupt, Chicago-style politics has no room in Colorado,” said Houlton in a statement. “Mario Carrera should resign from Entravision for his brazen attempt to hijack the voting process in Colorado and for his massive donations to Democrats while being employed by a non-partisan news source.”
The conservative blog Colorado Peak Politics first reported in September that Carrera had made high-dollar donations to Democratic candidates in 2008, though he also gave $500 to Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis the next year.
The GOP began unloading on Carrera after they said he let the commission’s Democrats “pull a fast one” by unveiling a surprise set of maps days after everyone else had turned in theirs.
Republicans contend they stuck to what they thought was a firm deadline to submit maps by noon on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving — set so that everyone would have the chance to study competing proposals over the holiday weekend and then have a healthy discussion on Monday. Democrats turned in maps at the same time, but Republicans later charged those were merely “decoy maps” meant to distract Republicans while Democrats got a peek at their opponents’ game plan.
Then Democrats filed a new set of maps at 10 p.m. on Sunday, just hours before the commission was scheduled to convene on Monday, and by the next morning Republicans had gone ballistic.
Blasting the last-minute Democratic proposals as a “Monday-morning gerrymander,” Colorado Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call charged the move was “aimed at using back-door, partisan tactics to avoid public review.” He called on his counterpart, state Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio, to “disavow” the submissions.
An unrepentant Palacio declined Call’s invitation.
“We have nothing to apologize for,” Palacio told The Colorado Statesman on Monday afternoon. “The Republicans submitted revisions this morning, so did the Democrats.”
Republicans proposed an amendment to their initial maps over the weekend, but GOP officials argue that Democrats submitted entirely different maps, while the GOP merely made some tweaks.
“I think there’s a very big difference between a brand new map and an amendment to a map,” said commissioner Steve Tool, a Republican, during the heated exchange that preceded Tuesday’s final vote.
“Both Democrats and Republicans submitted maps on Sunday, so I think its very difficult for any of us to be holier than thou,” responded Democrat Wellington Webb, the commission’s vice chairman and the former mayor of Denver.
In a wrinkle that emerged on Wednesday, according to emails obtained by The Denver Post, the commission’s staff told Republicans that all maps had to be in by the day before Thanksgiving but told Democratic commissioner state Sen. Morgan Carroll that maps would be accepted as late as Monday.
Loevy said it was clear what the Democrats had done.
“They had five days to look at our map and design a map that was, in many ways, better. It’s like a football team was handed a playbook five days before they played the game next Saturday,” Loevy said.
With one fatal exception, Loevy said, the Democratic maps were better because they split fewer counties than the Republican maps had and also increased the number of competitive seats.
“My view is, the Democrats were very skillful at this,” Loevy said. “Their plan works very hard at meeting the court’s legal requirements. They went out of their way to get everything in order on county splits and city splits, then went ahead and did something the court cannot review — the constitution says nothing about protection of incumbents.”
According to rough estimates — party officials said they were still examining the most detailed maps released late Wednesday — the Democratic maps situate at least 10 Republican legislators into the same districts as fellow incumbents.
“It’s an obvious attempt to decapitate as much of the Republican leadership as possible,” said Loevy. “Particularly those in El Paso County.”
Two of the top GOP lawmakers, Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs and House Majority Leader Amy Stephens of Monument, both now share their districts with other Republicans in the same chamber.
Stephens falls within the same boundaries as Rep. Marsha Looper, a Calhan resident. Cadman shares his district with state Sen. Keith King. Both Grand Junction Republicans, state Reps. Laura Bradford and Ray Scott, now live in the same district. Loveland Republicans B.J. Nikkel and Brian DelGrosso have more in common than a storied postmark. And the sprawling new district in northeast Colorado might not be big enough for both state Reps. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, and Jon Becker, R-Yuma.
But, as Loevy notes, while it’s about as hardball as it gets to push so many incumbents on top of each other, it probably won’t bother the court.
Before casting her vote against the Democratic maps, Republican commissioner Gayle Berry said she anticipated a different outcome.
“I hope we are the first commission to have a map remanded twice,” she told the meeting.
Later that afternoon, Loevy praised the Democrats, albeit with some damnation thrown in.
“I definitely would have voted for it if the Democrats had not included this blatantly partisan attempt to get rid of Republican leadership,” he said, noting that this week’s 6-5 majority shot down every Republican attempt to amend the maps.
Out of all the plans considered by the commission since late spring, Loevy said, the final Democratic maps had by far the highest number of competitive seats, based on his analysis using previous election results.
The first set of maps approved by the commission — but rejected by the court — included 33 districts that could be considered competitive, but the maps approved this week have even more, with an estimated 38 of the total 100 House and Senate districts potentially in play. (When it rejected the commission’s first submission, the court wrote that commissioners could strive to draw competitive districts, but not before satisfying all the legal requirements.)
And that was the biggest shame, said Loevy.
Except for what he termed “the worst form of gerrymandering” — pitting incumbents against each other — Loevy said there was much to admire about the maps the Democrats had proposed.
“That’s why I’m so angry about the procedure,” Loevy said, “because the Democrats have a good map — I would describe it as the best map — in terms of competitiveness. Then to turn around and pull procedural pyrotechnics, to slide in something the Supreme Court can’t review, jamming Republicans into the same districts — that’s what has upset me.”
Still, even considering the 11th-hour shenanigans, Loevy said he would be glad to do it again.
“For a political scientist,” he said, “getting on the reapportionment commission is like a geologist getting to be in the middle of an earthquake.”