Redistricting plays out in district court

The Colorado Statesman

Members of Colorado’s congressional delegation took the stand last week in a trial in Denver District Court to determine Colorado’s new congressional boundaries. Both Republican and Democratic representatives agreed that jobs and the economy are the most significant issues facing their districts, but they disagreed on communities of interest.

Attorneys representing both Republican and Democratic proposals grilled the lawmakers, including U.S. Reps. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, Jared Polis, D-Boulder, and Ed Perlmutter, D-Golden. They attempted to gather testimony in support of either the Democratic proposal, which includes significant congressional boundary shifts, or the Republican proposal, which has been dubbed “Minimum Disruption.1” because it makes few changes to the state’s seven congressional districts.

Congressional boundaries are redrawn every 10 years after the Census to reflect changes in population. Both parties sued the state this spring, asking the court to draw congressional boundaries after lawmakers failed to agree on a map. Lawmakers attempted to reach a compromise through a special bipartisan legislative committee, but partisan gridlock stalled the process again this year, as it has in years past. Democrats and Republicans in August introduced separate maps as part of the lawsuit determining redistricting. In September, Hispanic interests introduced maps of their own, which would make significant changes to Congressional District 3. Also in September, Pueblo District Attorney and former lawmaker Bill Thiebaut introduced two maps of his own, though his proposals make few changes to CD 3.

Tipton, who took the stand on Monday, was asked by Republican attorneys to define rural communities of interest in his CD 3, including Pueblo County and the Western Slope. Both parties’ proposed maps would leave the 3rd CD as a competitive district. Since the lines were last drawn in 2001, following the 2000 Census, the seat has changed hands twice between parties. Democrat John Salazar, who now serves as the Commissioner of Agriculture for Colorado, last held the seat. Tipton is already facing a challenge from state House Minority Leader Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, who is looking to place the competitive seat back in Democratic hands.

Tipton said there needs to be a focus on the rural makeup of the district, arguing that jobs and the economy pose a unique challenge because of high unemployment rates throughout the district.

“The biggest challenge we face is economic opportunity — being able to create jobs and prosperity,” Tipton testified.

He said because of the rural composition of CD 3, issues such as transportation and access to health care become more challenging when it comes to lobbying for federal funding.

“The importance for us to be able to get our goods over to the metropolitan area; for us to be able to get into the metropolitan area is very important to us,” said Tipton.

Because the needs of the people of CD 3 are so unique — focused around practical matters such as transportation, agriculture and oil and gas exploration — the voters of the district tend to care less about politics and more with everyday living, Tipton told the court. For that reason, the district tends to shift parties often, he said.

“The mix and the sense of community on the part of the 3rd Congressional District, as it exists now, apparently is not a major issue,” he said. “We elect people simply off the issues and what you see.”

“This is a district that is very irrespective of party; duly irrespective of geography,” he added. “Irrespective of what your heritage may be, you can get elected.”

“This is a district that doesn’t need to change,” he said. “I understand that it needs to be tweaked … but this is a district that seems to work; this is a district that meets a lot of objectives.”

Tipton is in favor of maps proposed by Western Slope advocacy group Club 20, which would place Grand County in with CD 3.

“This lends itself historically a little bit to what the 3rd has done, and maintains some of the continuity,” he said.

For their part, Latino interveners — including the Colorado Latino Forum and the Colorado Hispanic Bar Association — would like to align heavily Hispanic populated Pueblo and the San Luis Valley with Hispanic communities of interest along the Eastern Plains and Greeley. If Denver District Court Chief Judge Robert Hyatt backs the proposal, Pueblo would shift from the 3rd CD over to the Republican-leaning 4th District, represented by Congressman Cory Gardner, R-Yuma. Critics argue that Latinos would have a more difficult time electing a representative in the 4th CD.

The map would move House Minority Leader Pace out of the 3rd CD, potentially forcing him to choose between challenging Tipton or a more uphill battle against Gardner. But Pace has said that he is confident that he will be challenging Tipton, as planned.

The Latino proposal would also pair most of Denver with southern Adams County, and would create a 3rd CD that stretches from the western suburbs of Lakewood (Congressional District 7) to the Western Slope. The reconfiguration would force Perlmutter, who represents CD 7, to face off against Tipton. Perlmutter joked on Monday that it would be an interesting battle, considering he has a longtime friendship with Tipton, though he doubts that scenario will present itself.

“It would be an interesting race,” said Perlmutter. “Scott and I are friends, but a lot of things we agree on and a lot of things we disagree on.”

Perlmutter himself took the stand on Wednesday, testifying to the unique makeup of CD 7, including aging infrastructure, a slew of federal facilities, and a usually competitive district. He called the voter population of CD 7 “even-steven,” noting a balanced breakdown of Democrat, Republican and unaffiliated voters.

“It’s very much a swing district,” he testified in response to questions from Democratic attorneys. “Unaffiliated voters call the shots. Whichever way they swing, that will determine the outcome of the election. It is a district where you really have to work hard.”

Under the Democratic proposal, suburban metro Denver districts, including Douglas County and the 6th and 7th Congressional Districts, would shift over to the western and eastern parts of the metro area, making the districts more competitive. The proposal would take part of Aurora from Perlmutter’s district and put it in Republican Congressman Mike Coffman’s 6th Congressional District. Under that scenario, Coffman would face a more competitive race. State Rep. Joe Miklosi, D-Denver, has declared his candidacy against Coffman in the “soon-to-be-redrawn” 6th CD. Miklosi says he is going to run in that district no matter how the lines are reconfigured.

Perlmutter pointed out that the Democratic proposal would actually be more difficult for him compared to the Republican proposal, but he said the maps would be better for the voter population. “In a perfect world,” Perlmutter said, he would like to see all congressional districts competitive.

“It forces people running for office to reach out a lot and to engage as many people as possible,” he said.

Democrat Polis also testified, answering questions related to a dramatic Democratic proposal that would shift nearly all of Republican-leaning Larimer County from the 4th CD into the Democratic-leaning 2nd District, including liberal Boulder County, currently represented by Polis.

Polis made the argument for the shift, aligning Boulder and Larimer counties through commonalities around the university systems of the University of Colorado in Boulder and Colorado State University in Fort Collins. He also spoke of pine beetle devastation facing the two districts. Polis said that while any lawmaker can represent those interests, a unified lobbying effort would better benefit those communities.

“Certainly the delegation can work together on statewide issues, but what it takes is a member… to be the lead on an issue,” he said.

Democrats have also attempted to link issues surrounding hydraulic fracturing with both Larimer and Boulder counties, though Republicans contend that fracking is not a major issue facing either district but instead usually occurs in the 3rd CD.

Polis, who has sponsored legislation to disclose chemicals used in the fracking process, believes the issue is one that faces all of Colorado, including the 2nd and 4th CDs.

“I believe that fracking is… widespread in western and eastern Colorado,” Polis said.

Polis indicated that he was not taking any sides in the redistricting debate. “I’m here for information,” he said. “I’m not here to advocate a particular course.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com