High court affirms maps drawn by Dems

Newly configured Congressional districts are more competitive
The Colorado Statesman

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled on Monday that congressional district lines drawn by Democrats and approved by a Denver judge will stand.

The high court issued its order just days after hearing arguments over whether the map fairly reflects changing demographics or it yanks major Front Range counties into other districts for no good reason.

The adopted map could scramble the partisan makeup of Colorado’s congressional delegation by establishing four districts that can be described as competitive — up from two swing districts under the current map — leaving just three of the state’s seats clearly dominated by Republican or Democratic voters.

Whether competitiveness was a factor in the ruling — it wasn’t addressed in detail during oral arguments before the court — remains to be seen, as the court has so far only issued a terse mandate affirming the lower court’s decision. A written opinion, including how the justices sided, can be expected “in the near future,” according to the court’s order.

The new map draws an evenly divided district with Aurora, Colorado’s third-largest city, at its center, and moves Larimer County from a district spanning the Eastern Plains into one tied to Boulder and a cluster of mountain counties. Other than the portion of Douglas County that hugs the metro area, the bulk of the fast-growing, Republican-dominated county lands in the district Larimer County used to call home.

“This is terrific for Colorado and hopefully for the country,” said attorney Mark Grueskin, who represented Democrats in the lawsuit that led to the map’s creation and faced off against GOP attorney Richard Westfall.

Grueskin praised the court for deciding a map brimming with competitive districts also satisfied legal requirements for realigning congressional boundaries, as must happen every 10 years using results of the U.S. Census.

“With congressional approval being at an all time low,” Grueskin said, “this map symbolizes building accountability into the system of congressional elections — both accountability over the issues that matter to people and competitiveness in districts so that no one gets so entrenched they take for granted constituents or the issues of the day.”

State GOP Chairman Ryan Call, for his part, heaped praise on the decision, saying Colorado Republicans were “excited” about the outcome. Republican candidates, he predicted, would be able to out-compete Democrats for newly competitive seats.

The map landed in front of Supreme Court justices after legislators failed to come to agreement on redistricting plans this spring, sending the task into the courts for the fourth time in as many decades. Following a two-week trial before Denver District Judge Robert Hyatt, a map submitted by state Democrats — dubbed the Moreno map after one of the party’s plaintiffs, Commerce City Councilman Dominick Moreno — won his approval, but the state Republican Party and several large counties appealed that decision to the high court.

Justices heard an hour’s worth of arguments on Dec. 1 before a packed house in the Old Supreme Court Chambers at the Capitol. Lawyers representing the state GOP and Douglas County told the court why they thought the Moreno map should be thrown out, and lawyers for state Democrats and the Aurora made a case for keeping the map endorsed by Hyatt.

“We are ecstatic,” said Aurora city attorney Charlie Richardson shortly after the decision was handed down. “It’s a historic event for the City of Aurora — for the first time in our history, we have acquired the right to be represented by a single congressperson. It’s very, very exciting.”

Richardson noted that Aurora has been divided among districts since anyone can remember, despite longstanding acknowledgement the growing city might be better served by anchoring its own seat. Once a substantial community gets its own district, he said, redistricting experts have told him it tends to stay that way, so Monday’s ruling could have implications beyond even the next 10 years.

Even as most of the reaction to the ruling was concerned with whether Democrats “won” or Republicans “lost,” Richardson said the city had wisely charted its own course between partisan shoals. (During the initial hearing in the Denver courtroom, Republicans also endorsed plans that kept Aurora whole, though the remainder of the district differed from the map proposed by Democrats.)

“The Aurora City Council,” Richardson said, “deserves a lot of credit. It’s a Republican-dominated city council, when you peel back the nonpartisan aspect. But they all put their partisan interests aside and came together unanimously to support the higher cause, which is to have us in one congressional district.”

Aurora’s decision to intervene formally in the lawsuit — rather than wait to weigh in during the appeals process, as other localities did — had a lot to do with the results, Richardson said. “This is tremendous good news,” the ebullient city official concluded.

Westfall’s reaction, predictably, was more glum.

“Not much to say,” he wrote in an email to The Colorado Statesman. “I’m obviously very disappointed, especially for Douglas and Larimer Counties who are very dis-served by this ruling.”

Douglas County’s top legal officer agreed with Westfall’s general take but said the south-suburban county was ready to move on.

“I’m disappointed in the result,” said county attorney Lance J. Ingalls in an interview with The Statesman. “Nonetheless, Douglas County will move forward with the districts the court has decided on.” He added, “The maps do hurt Douglas County, but we’ll live with them.”

George H. Hass, county attorney for Larimer County, had a succinct reaction to the ruling: “It doesn’t surprise me,” he told The Statesman and declined to elaborate.

Larimer County had also objected to the map, arguing it had far more in common with Weld County and the agricultural interests of the plains than it did with Boulder and a collection of ski towns. (Backers of the Moreno map countered that the University of Colorado in Boulder and Colorado State University in Fort Collins tied the two communities and demanded a single congressional representative.)

The new map leaves only three of the state’s seven seats firmly in the column of one or the other political party — two awash in Republicans and one swimming with Democrats. Absent other factors, the other four districts could be competitive for either party.

The Denver-based 1st District remains overwhelmingly dominated by Democrats, with long-serving incumbent Diana DeGette’s party holding a 25-point advantage over Republicans. By the same token, Republicans hold similarly wide margins in both the 4th District, won last year by Yuma Republican Cory Gardner, and the 5th District, represented since 2007 by Colorado Springs Republican Doug Lamborn.

The newly drawn 6th District is the closest Colorado has to an evenly divided swing district, with just a 1-point difference between Republican and Democratic voter registration numbers, with the GOP having slightly more. Aurora Republican Mike Coffman easily won election twice to the seat when it was more heavily weighted to GOP voters.

The other competitive seats — described by some political observers as districts where neither party holds more than a 5 percent margin over the other among registered voters — are the 2nd and 3rd Districts, with the 7th District falling just outside that definition.

The 2nd District, represented since 2008 by Boulder Democrat Jared Polis, has the same 4-point party
registration edge for Democrats as Republicans enjoy in the 3rd District, which swapped Democrat John Salazar for Cortez Republican Scott Tipton last year. Golden Democrat Ed Perlmutter can count a margin of 6 percent more Democrats than Republicans in the Jefferson County-based 7th District.

But there are other yardsticks for competitiveness — including incumbency, voting patterns and whether unaffiliated voters tend to lean one way or the other — and taking those measures into account, political watchers are classifying the 2nd District as a safer Democrat seat while casting the 3rd, 6th and 7th Districts as the most likely to be up for grabs.

Since this summer, Democratic candidates have been gunning for Tipton and Coffman. State Rep. Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, gave up his post as minority leader in the state House last month to devote more attention to his campaign in the 3rd District, and state Rep. Joe Miklosi, D-Denver, has said he plans to move to Aurora next month so that he will reside in the new 6th District for his attempt to unseat Coffman.

Likewise, Republican candidates began this week to test the waters in the 2nd and 7th Districts. The political website Colorado Pols reported that brewery heir Joseph Coors, Jr., was gauging support for a run against Perlmutter, and ultra-conservative state Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Fort Collins, announced he was exploring whether he might run against Polis.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com