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Dem Matheson: GOP 'gerrymandering' helped him

Published July 7, 2011 12:57 pm

Politics • Democrat says vast, GOP-drawn district benefited his political career.
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It's not like he intends to send Republicans a thank-you note. But Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, said they accidentally did him a favor 10 years ago when he said they tried to redistrict him out of office.

"First, it backfired because they didn't get rid of me. I still won," he said. Second, the vast district they drew for him — instead of the compact, more Democratic Salt Lake County-centered district he had represented previously — "helped me get acquainted with the entire state."

That, and the statewide recognition it helped him build, could make it easier for him to run for the U.S. Senate or governor, which he is considering — as well as running again for the House.

"It has sort of been like holding a statewide office," he said about his district, which stretches from eastern Salt Lake and northern Utah counties out to the Uinta Basin, down to San Juan County and then west to St. George and Cedar City.

"It has created an opportunity for me to be involved in about every type of issue facing the state, from representing energy areas like the Uinta Basin, to high-growth areas such as Washington County and an established urban area like Salt Lake County," he said. "It has put me in a better position to run for the Senate or governor."

And if he chooses to run again for the House, he said his statewide recognition could help him survive shenanigans he expects from Republicans who may try, again, to gerrymander him out of office. He said wider recognition more easily allows him to choose among perhaps several different U.S. House districts — so if the one where he lives is drawn to be too Republican, he could choose another.

"You don't have to run in the district you live in," he said, pointing out that Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, does not live in the district he represents.

"Chaffetz is actually my constituent," Matheson said, noting that Chaffetz chose to run in a more conservative district that contained greater portions of Utah County, which Chaffetz considers his base.

"So I'll look at all options," he said.

Such benefits from unintended consequences of redistricting do little to soften Matheson's constant criticism of the current process. "I think the hearings they are having are window dressing, and perhaps the maps are already drawn," he said.

Matheson complains, "Elected officials shouldn't be drawing the boundaries," as the Legislature does in Utah. He said Gov. Gary Herbert could still choose to have an independent commission make recommendations, as Matheson's late father, former Gov. Scott Matheson, once did.

Herbert previously declined that call by Matheson, saying the Utah Constitution requires the Legislature to redraw boundaries. Also, Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, has been quoted many times that no such commission is truly independent because someone must appoint its members — and everyone has special interests.

State Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, the House chairman of the Redistricting Committee, has also said several times that his committee is trying to be as fair and transparent as possible.

The committee has set up a website — RedistrictUtah.com — where people can submit their own redistricting maps and look at all other maps that the committee has formally received.

Because Matheson has called for politicians not to redraw their own boundaries, he said he decided not to comment on individual redistricting proposals or to make one of his own.

"I don't think my opinion should matter. … I'm not going to say who my constituents should or shouldn't be."

But he does comment on some general principles. Despite benefits he has gained by representing a vast district, he doesn't believe most Republicans are sincere when they argue about the benefits of having an urban-rural mix in districts by possibly slicing Democratic Salt Lake County among all four new U.S. House districts.

"That's all just code for partisan gerrymandering. I don't buy that for a minute," he said. Matheson believes they are more interested in diluting Democratic votes in Salt Lake County by slicing it apart, making it more likely that all four U.S. House districts would have large GOP majorities.

Matheson also discounts talk that creating a heavily Democratic district in Salt Lake County may actually make him more vulnerable from attacks from the left by liberals who see him as too moderate. Democrat Claudia Wright won 45 percent of convention delegate votes in Matheson's moderate district to force him into a primary last year.

Would a heavily Democratic district make him more vulnerable to the left?

"I don't think it does," he said. "I don't think it's possible to make a really Democratic district, by the way," he said, adding he doubts the GOP-controlled Legislature would ever create one.

Matheson said he will likely decide later this year whether to run for the House, Senate or for governor — and that redistricting will be a small factor as he weighs his options.

"I can't say it's completely irrelevant. But I don't think it's the determining factor, either."







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