Denver redistricting hearing draws sparse crowd

DeGette makes pitch to keep Denver intact
The Colorado Statesman

The only redistricting hearing scheduled for the 1st Congressional District, which needs to pick up more than 56,000 people to get it to parity, drew just a smattering of public attention this week.

The Monday hearing at the state Capitol drew at least three dozen legislative aides, legislators, media and other capitol insiders, but fewer than two dozen from outside the Capitol.

The committee decided earlier that day to move the hearing from the Legislative Services Building’s largest hearing room to the Old Supreme Court Chamber to handle what was expected to be a large crowd. But the hearing drew fewer than had been present at the Loveland hearing two days earlier, which was standing room only at about 70, and only slightly more than the number who attended the forum in Fort Morgan, estimated at 40 by committee member Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray.

Among the dozen who came to testify, Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., whose congressional district will change under the new map, and University of Colorado Regent Monisha Merchant, whose 7th Congressional District will need to add 40,000.

Denver Mayor Bill Vidal addresses the Joint Select Committee on Redistricting during its Monday, Feb. 28, hearing in the Old Supreme Court Chambers.
Photo by Marianne Goodland/The Colorado Statesman

U.S. Census Bureau figures released last week show the 2010 Colorado population at 5,029,196. That means 718,457 people per congressional district for four districts, and one fewer for the other three. Currently, six of the seven districts have 614,466; the 7th has 614,467 (federal law requires congressional districts to be drawn as nearly equal as “practicable”). While state law has tasked the General Assembly with redrawing congressional district maps for the past 40 years, the Legislature has never done it: maps have been drawn by the courts. Most recently, in 2001, it fell to the courts because the General Assembly could not agree on a map.

DeGette has represented the 1st Congressional District since 1997, which means the district has already changed twice. She pointed out that the district currently includes Denver, Glendale, Cherry Hills Village, Englewood, and Sheridan. However, in the 14 years that she’s represented the district it’s also included a tiny portion of Jefferson County (four people), and prior to 2001 parts of counties north of Denver, and Northern Aurora.

“I realize the importance of keeping Denver together in one unified district,” DeGette told the committee. “Citizens of Denver share cultural, economic, political and social ties, making it critical that they be represented by a single voice in Congress.”

DeGette predicted Colorado will get an eighth congressional seat after the next census, but for now, each district will have large populations. She cited as communities of interest Denver’s racial and ethnic populations, health care as provided by Denver Health, Denver International Airport and Union Station.

As to what she’d add, DeGette said she’s “agnostic” about it, but said since the 6th Congressional District needs to lose population (about 80,000) and some of those areas are similar to Cherry Hills Village in the south part of her district, it would make sense to add from there.

Denver Mayor Bill Vidal asked the committee to keep Denver intact in order not to dilute the concentration of minority voting in the city. Denver’s minority population is close to 48 percent, and that keeping minority voting intact is a key constitutional requirement of any redistricting plan. He also asked for preservation of county and municipal boundaries, and to consider Denver’s communities of interest, including its single school district and its role as a regional transportation center and home to four major sports teams.

Former RTD board member O’Neill Quinlan asked the committee to “put political posturing aside for the sake of the people of this great state.” He encouraged the committee to keep the Western slope and Eastern plains whole in their current districts, rather than gerrymander them into multiple districts. He suggested looking at transportation corridors for population; “nibble at the edge” and when larger numbers are needed shape the map along transportation corridors, such as I-225.

Several people testified in favor of adding from the north rather than from the south. Linda White suggested adding North Aurora or Commerce City so that there might be the possibility of the district electing a Hispanic or African-American representative.

Judy Kriss, who lives in Southeast Denver, suggested going into Arapahoe County for some of the additions, explaining that her part of the district shares boundaries and interests with unincorporated Arapahoe County.

Touching on the interests of the 7th Congressional District, Merchant pleaded for the Anschutz Medical Campus to be kept in that district and not moved elsewhere. “It’s a critical economic engine for the area,” she said, generating $373 million in research and training grants and $6 billion in economic activity annually. “It’s imperative that the institution have a congressional ear and voice,” she said.

The next witness caused Brophy to tweet, “Ah Dan Willis, new witness, now we get to see what a basement dwelling lefty blogger looks like in person.” (Willis is a former officer of the Denver Democratic Party and frequently blogs on ColoradoPols.) Willis testified that he had been looking at the redistricting issue for the past decade, and since the census numbers came out last week has done little else but study the numbers. Willis suggested that bringing in people in Aurora between Denver and I-225 would reach almost the required number, or the committee could look at the Adams County portions that include North Aurora and Commerce City.

It depends “on how precise you wish to be,” he said, noting that the courts had gotten it down to within one person in each district. “I’m hoping this committee will allow for more variance.” Willis has come up with his own map that he said would keep most counties whole, with a variance of less than 300 people per district. He also noted the current map for the 1st District has four people from Jefferson County, although DeGette later told The Colorado Statesman she thought it was the result of a drafting error.

Wendy Warner of Washington Park said she also is familiar with the demographics of Adams County, since she works for a non-profit there, and agreed with adding Adams County to the 1st District. “If you’re looking for a direction to add to Denver County, it makes a lot more sense, issue-wise, to go north than to go south,” she said.

Adding Adams County would also help with the communities of interest for Latinos and Latinas, said Amber Tafoya. In response to a question from Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, Tafoya said the Latino population has grown substantially in Adams County, and Latinos/Latinas are looking for opportunities to elect the candidates of their choice. That didn’t necessary mean candidates had to be Latino/Latina, she said, but they do want “ fair districts for Latinos” and hoped that at least one or two districts could be competitive so Latinos could be elected to Congress.

And one witness simply asked for squares and rectangles. Sharon Pearce of Aurora said that as a resident of the 7th District, it’s sometimes difficult to travel to town halls or other congressional events on the other side of the district because it goes around Denver as far west as Golden. “You want the citizenry to be involved as much as they like, and they need to be able to attend” these functions, she said. “I really appreciate squares and rectangles respecting population centers,” she said.

Pearce has lived in the district for 11 years, prior to it becoming part of the new 7th District. She said she goes to events hosted by her congressman, Ed Perlmutter, when they’re scheduled in Aurora. “It’s an issue now with gasoline prices, so I don’t go to the west side of town,” she said. Pearce added that she believes the district is gerrymandered. “It’s the most crazy jigsaw puzzle piece in the world. It doesn’t make any good sense whatsoever.”

DeGette told The Statesman if the committee wanted to draw her district, picking up north or south areas, she wouldn’t object. “I’ve worked in those communities” in the past, and given her work on issues such as transportation and healthcare funding, she believes those issues “would resonate with any metro community.”

The committee was scheduled to meet again on Thursday in Golden at the Jefferson County Administration Building. On March 9, the committee will be in Colorado Springs, at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs’ University Center, beginning at 6 p.m. The committee will be meeting in the one district that isn’t represented by a committee member — the 5th. Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker, said his state senate district includes the northern part of the 5th but his home is in the 4th Congressional District.

The committee make-up includes three members who live in the 3rd, two from the 4th, and two from the 6th. Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, said he was unaware that the committee lacked a 5th District member; Republicans said they were aware of it and blamed Senate Democrats. Both 4th District members are Republicans, one from each chamber; as are the two 6th District members, one from each chamber. Two of the three members from the 3rd are Democrats, one from each chamber.

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com