Republicans predict Utah redistricting plans are bullet-proof

Politics • Party leaders say they have crafted them to stand up to political, legal challenges.
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Outnumbered Utah Democrats hate the new redistricting maps. A dozen incumbent legislators, mostly Republicans, who are drawn into districts with other incumbents are not thrilled either. And citizen and reform groups are rallying against the plans that they say are unfair.

But GOP leaders say they have carefully crafted maps to be bullet-proof to both political and eventual legal challenges, and expect only minor tweaks as the full Legislature begins a special session on Monday at 9 a.m. to consider them.

"I think's there's about a 98 percent chance that what you see now will be the near to the final maps," said Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville.

That comes at the end of a long process in which the Legislature's Redistricting Committee traveled more than 2,000 miles around the state for field hearings, and allowed anyone to draw and submit proposals on the committee's website.

But Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis says that was just for show, and Republicans are pushing plans to benefit their party that are not supported by a majority of Utahns as shown by polls and comments at field hearings.

"Those maps are an insult to the people of Utah," he said. Dabakis especially dislikes how the congressional map cuts the Democratic stronghold of Salt Lake County into three slices, and dilutes Democratic votes by attaching them to Republican areas mostly in rural areas. He says it is a blatant attempt by Republicans to ensure they will win all four new congressional seats.

"We will sue if it is unchanged" by the full Legislature, Dabakis said. He notes that Waddoups has said that a sign that plans drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature 10 years ago were fair was that no one sued to change them, so Dabakis does not want to allow such claims again.

But Sen. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, the Senate chairman of the redistricting committee, said his panel took steps to help ensure plans will survive legal challenges.

He notes that courts have looked mostly at how well plans protect the philosophy of one person, one vote. So he said three of the four proposed congressional districts were drawn to have exactly equal populations, and the other has one person more. "You can't get any closer than that," he said.

To help prevent lawsuits on redistricting maps for state legislative districts, the committee drew them so that state Senate seats do not vary in population by any more than three people, and state House seats do not vary by any more than 29 people.

But Dabakis said some Democratic lawyers believe it may be possible to convince a court that Utah's districts are extraordinarily out of partisan balance. He said Democrats receive more than 40 percent of votes, but receive fewer than 30 percent of congressional and legislative seats in districts drawn 10 years ago. "And the new districts are worse," he said.

A more immediate threat to maps are political challenges that could surface in the special session this week.

For example, reform groups are holding a rally at 11:30 a.m. in the Capitol Rotunda, hoping that a large crowd will appear and support their contentions that maps unfairly divide Salt Lake County, protect incumbents and help Republicans to larger majorities than they deserve.

For example, they point at how the state Senate map combines distant Tooele and Brigham City — by drawing lines through the Great Salt Lake — in an apparent attempt to prevent including incumbent Sen. Peter Knudson, R-Brigham City, in a district with another incumbent. They say several other lines similarly make no sense, except to protect incumbents.

But it is incumbents who will vote on that map. And only two incumbent senators, both Democrats, are put into districts together: Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City, and Pat Jones, D-Holladay. Romero has already announced that he will run for Salt Lake County mayor instead of seeking re-election.

With that, Waddoups says he figures he easily has "25 or 26 votes" out of 29 for that map in the Senate. Republicans in the Senate currently outnumber Democrats 22-7.

In the House, 10 incumbents have been put into districts together. Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, House chairman of the redistricting committee, says it's possible that one or two may be able to muster enough support to change their districts, but expects only minor tweaks instead. He said House leaders worked closely with members throughout the process and most bought into the committee maps.

In Salt Lake County, incumbents put into the same districts are: Reps. David Litvack and recently appointed Brian Doughty, both Salt Lake City Democrats; Democratic Rep. Janice Fisher and Republican Rep. Fred Cox, both of West Valley City; and Republican Reps. Todd Kiser, of Sandy, and LaVar Christensen, of Draper.

In Utah County, where only Republicans hold elected office, House members who have long fought shoulder-to-shoulder against illegal immigration would face each other: Reps. Steve Sandstrom, of Orem, and Chris Herrod, of Provo. In Weber County, Reps. Brad Galvez, R-West Haven, and Jeremy Peterson, R-Ogden, were drawn into the same district.

In the House, Republicans currently outnumber Democrats by a 58-17 margin.

Political challenges also are possible to the congressional map besides just from Democrats who say it is unfair. Some pressure may be coming behind the scenes from GOP Gov. Gary Herbert.

Morgan Philpot, the last Republican to run against Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, publicly attacked Herbert in recent days, contending he is pressuring Republicans to draw a friendlier district for Matheson so he will seek re-election rather than challenge Herbert in the governor's race. Philpot says he plans to challenge Matheson again but has not ruled out a run against Herbert.

Philpot said several lawmakers told him that Herbert is applying such pressure. Allyson Isom, Herbert's spokeswoman, denies that, and said he has been pushing only for fair maps.

When Sumsion was asked about the chances of changing the proposed congressional map, he said that "depends on the governor," and would not elaborate, saying he would "leave that to the governor's staff to articulate." Isom said the governor merely wants plans that are defensible and fair to all.

Even with that, Sumsion said he doesn't expect any major changes. He said GOP legislators prefer "pizza slice" plans that cut up Salt Lake County and combine the pieces with rural areas, and he is confident that sort of plan will prevail.

The Redistricting Committee passed the current "pizza slice" congressional plan on a straight party-line vote this week, with all 14 Republicans supporting it and all five Democrats opposing it. —


O View the Redistricting Committee maps approved for debate before the full Legislature.