Open season on open seats for 2012 legislative races

The Colorado Statesman

If the legislative maps submitted this week to the Colorado Supreme Court win approval, the General Assembly could see unprecedented turnover after next year’s election, and it won’t matter who wins or who loses at the polls. That’s because the Democratic maps approved late last month create open seats in 11 House districts and three Senate districts, a byproduct of drawing 29 legislative incumbents into districts with other incumbents. And that’s on top of the usual open seats created by term limits and legislators who decline to run again.

In total, between incumbents in the same districts, term limits and retirements, next year’s election could see at least 19 open seats in the House — nearly one third of the chamber, and eight open Senate seats — nearly half of those up for election next year.

The Colorado Reapportionment Commission on Tuesday turned in a set of maps drawn by Democrats and approved on a pair of identical 6-5 votes taken last week. The Supreme Court rejected the commission’s first set of maps last month and ordered commissioners to draw districts that didn’t split too many counties while maintaining other legal requirements for the once-a-decade exercise.

Republicans charge the maps — approved by the commission’s five Democrats and its lone unaffiliated member, who chaired the panel and sided with Democrats on a series of votes early last week — unfairly target GOP incumbent lawmakers by lumping them together in the same districts.

“It’s an obvious attempt to decapitate as much of the Republican leadership as possible,” said Republican commissioner Bob Loevy, a political science professor at Colorado College. He said Democrats on the commission were very skillful drawing maps that met constitutional criteria while at the same time shoving incumbents into the same districts, something the court can’t consider when ruling on the maps.

But Democrats say they drew the lines without regard to the addresses of politicians and were merely trying to satisfy the court’s requirements. In addition, they point out, it wasn’t just a handful of prominent Republicans forced within the same boundaries — some Democrats suffered the same fate and in several instances incumbents of both parties will have to face off if each wants to stay in the Legislature.

Anyone objecting to the maps had until 5 p.m. Thursday to file briefs with the Supreme Court. Judicial officials have said the court hopes to meet a Dec. 14 deadline to hand certified maps over to Secretary of State Scott Gessler, who has county clerks across the state awaiting his go-ahead to start drawing precinct boundaries in advance of a rapidly approaching caucus season.

Three senators and seven House members will automatically lose their seats after the 2012 session simply because an unusually high number of incumbents have been drawn into the same districts. In all, 21 incumbent House members and eight incumbent senators would share districts with other lawmakers in the same chamber, if the court OKs the new maps.

That compares with just two incumbents — state Reps. Brad Young, R-Lamar, and Ken Kester, R-Las Animas — who suffered the same fate during the last round of reapportionment in 2001, according to commission staffer Jeremiah Barry, who participated in drawing both decades’ sets of maps. In that case, Kester went on to win election to an open Senate seat representing southeastern Colorado, so the end result was that no incumbents were pitted against each other.

If the maps are approved, House members drawn into the same districts this time include:

• State Reps. Clare Levy, D-Boulder, and Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, both in District 13;

• State Reps. Janak Joshi, R-Colorado Springs, and Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, both in District 16, though Liston is term-limited;

• House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, R-Monument, and state Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan, both in District 19;

• State Reps. Ken Summers, R-Lakewood, Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, and Max Tyler, D-Lakewood, all in District 23;

• State Reps. Spencer Swalm, R-Centennial, and David Balmer, R-Centennial, both in District 37, though Balmer is term-limited;

• State Reps. Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, and Keith Swerdfeger, R-Pueblo West, both in District 46, though Pace isn’t seeking another term;

• Majority Whip B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland, and state Rep. Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, both in District 51;

• State Reps. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, and Laura Bradford, R-Grand Junction, both in District 54;

• Speaker pro Tempore Kevin Priola, R-Brighton, and state Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, both in District 56, though Solano is term-limited;

• State Reps. Jon Becker, R-Yuma, and Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, both in District 65.

Senate members drawn into districts with other incumbents include:

• Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, and state Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, both in District 12;

• State Sens. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Black Hawk, and Tim Neville, R-Littleton, both in District 16, though because of a sequencing error Neville will only serve through the next session because the seat held by Nicholson isn’t up for election until 2014;

• President pro Tempore Betty Boyd, D-Lakewood, and state Sen. Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge, both in District 20, though Boyd is term-limited;

• State Sens. Joyce Foster, D-Denver, and Pat Steadman, D-Denver, both in District 31, though Foster has said she’ll bow out and let Steadman keep the seat.

Now, the high number of paired incumbents doesn’t mean they’ll all be running against each other for a limited number of seats. As part of the usual General Assembly churn, a good number of the incumbents drawn into districts with other incumbents are facing term limits, while others have said they’ll be moving on and declining to seek reelection, as noted above.

But on top of that, a dozen more seats — seven in the House and five in the Senate — will be open in next year’s election due solely to term limits. (Three additional term-limited lawmakers were drawn into districts with incumbents who don’t face their limits yet, so those seats won’t be open unless the non-termed incumbents decide not to seek reelection.)

Throw in at least two House members who have said they won’t seek reelection, leaving their seats open: state Rep. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield, said last month he wouldn’t run for a second term, and state Rep. Joe Miklosi, D-Denver, announced this summer he was giving up his seat to run for Congress. (Pace is also giving up his seat to run for Congress, but because he was drawn into the same seat as Swerdfeger, that won’t create an open seat.)

Because some lawmakers fall into more than one category — drawn in with another incumbent but leaving anyway due to term limits or retirement — it all adds up to 19 open House seats and eight open Senate seats next year, and that’s assuming there won’t be any more lawmakers who decline to seek another term.

But the maps haven’t been certified yet, and Republicans are planning to mount a vigorous challenge to the ones submitted this week.

Stephens said she has every intention of running in 2012 — a sentiment echoed by Looper — but added that she is confident it won’t come to a primary fight with a fellow Republican. The Supreme Court, she predicted, will reject the current maps, which she said embody “the gold-standard of gerrymandering.”

“My hope is the court will look at this fairly, look that this process was tainted, that the rules were changed,” Stephens told The Colorado Statesman. “Let’s see if we can get a more constitutional map in the mix here.”

Blasting the commission’s last-minute proceedings, Stephens said the Supreme Court needs to consider what she said were clear violations of the procedures ordered by the court when it sent back the first set of maps.

“I don’t think this hurts Republican incumbents, I think it hurts the voters, it hurts everybody,” Stephens said. “This is why you have people screaming for transparency when shenanigans like this go on — they hate it, and they hate what the fallout is from that, and I don’t blame them, frankly.”

A pair of Democrats drawn into the same Lakewood district — along with a third, Republican incumbent — sounded less angry at the commission and, though miffed, content to see how the court rules before deciding how to proceed.

“It’s not exactly roses and chocolate,” said Tyler, who holds a monthly town meeting along with the other two House members, Kerr and Summers, who would share a district with him under the proposed maps. At last weekend’s town meeting, he said, there was plenty of discussion about having three veteran lawmakers all potentially vying for the same seat.

“We’ve been genial about it, but when it comes down to it, it’s going to be rough,” Tyler said. “I have a lot of respect for Ken Summers, he’s a hard worker — I don’t agree with him on a lot of things, but I respect him.”
Still, Tyler said he’s sure he won’t be facing Kerr in a primary whatever happens.

“We’re both going to be running for something, I’m sure,” he said, noting that they both reside in a Senate seat that would have opened up anyway with Boyd’s retirement due to term limits.

But he declined to speculate whether it would be him or Kerr who makes a run for the upper chamber.

“Given the flux these maps have been in, it wouldn’t make any sense to make a hard decision right now,” Tyler said. “Everybody’s sort of holding their breath now, not moving forward, and that’s hard.”

Kerr had a similar take.

“I have resigned myself to waiting to see what the Supreme Court says on Dec. 14,” said Kerr. “We’ve heard a lot about how Republicans are upset with these new maps, our district is an example where there are folks in the Democratic Party who don’t look to gain from the new maps either. But at the end of the day, the Reapportionment Commission is supposed to draw lines that benefit the people of Colorado, they’re not drawn to benefit people who happen to be incumbents.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com