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In its long-awaited final decision on how to draw new congressional districts, the Legislature's Redistricting Committee on Tuesday served up a "pizza slice" plan which would slice Salt Lake County into three pieces and combine them with large rural areas.
That has Democrats and reform groups howling that the map is designed to dilute Democratic votes in their one stronghold of Salt Lake County, and improve chances that Republicans can win all four of the state's congressional seats next year.
Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, was dissatisfied enough at what appears to be a tougher district for him that he said "a race by me for governor or the Senate is still on the table" instead of seeking House re-election. Other districts would appear to be safe for incumbent Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Rob Bishop, both R-Utah, and a new district would appear ideal for a run for Congress by state Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, who has already said he is running.
Meanwhile, Republicans who hold a 15-4 majority on the committee say the map was not drawn to improve their party's chances, but to ensure that all of Utah's members of Congress would focus on both urban and rural issues and take a statewide focus with them to Washington that is important for a small state.
Gerrymandering? • Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis told the committee the boundaries were gerrymandered for GOP benefit, and said it would help continue a trend of fewer Utahns casting ballots because they believe their votes do not count in districts where the outcome is certain.
"When you draw the lines in such a blatant political way, it deflates the energy of democracy," he said.
When House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, asked Dabakis to define "gerrymandering," he replied, "It's what you guys have done."
Democrats and reform groups had sought a "doughnut hole" plan that would create one district in Salt Lake County, and create up to three urban districts on the Wasatch Front surrounded by a large rural district. They contended that would keep "communities of interest" together.
Lockhart said the new map which she drew by altering a pizza-slice plan submitted by Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, co-chairman of the committee is actually "sort of a hybrid plan."
It would keep Salt Lake City whole, as sought by Democrats and others, but combine it with GOP-dominated areas. Lockhart said it would create another district out of the growing western portions of Salt Lake and Utah counties in areas "that had enough babies and people move in to give us the fourth [congressional] seat. … So this puts them all together."
However, Maryann Martindale, executive director of Alliance for a Better UTAH, said, "It's a pizza-slice plan," and not a hybrid. "It still splits Salt Lake County three different ways and divides communities of interest there."
She said the new 4th District in western Salt Lake and Utah counties appears "to be drawn for Carl Wimmer," by giving him conservative, west-side areas in both counties.
Lockhart said she did not draw that for Wimmer. She said the only request that she took into account was that "Jason Chaffetz asked that he live in the district he represents. I figured that was a reasonable request." Chaffetz lives in Alpine, currently just outside of the district he has represented for two terms. Federal law requires that a member of Congress live in the state they help represent, but not necessarily the district where they live.
Chaffetz's new district would include most of the larger cities in Utah County and combine them with mostly conservative areas in the Uinta Basin, which should make it relatively safe for him.
'Take another look' • While the map would keep Democratic Salt Lake City whole for the first time in two decades, it does not appear to do any favors for Matheson and Democrats who live there. It would combine and outnumber them with GOP rural areas stretching to St. George and San Juan County, plus conservative Bountiful and Woods Cross in Davis County.
Matheson would lose from his current district Democratic east-side areas in Salt Lake County and Carbon County. Matheson issued a statement urging the full Legislature to "take another look at the map and do what is in the best interest of the state of Utah."
Sumsion insists the new map creates competitive seats, and said he actually preferred versions that gave the GOP even better chances. He said Matheson's new district and the new 4th District combining western Salt Lake and Utah counties "can both be won by the Democrats if they run a good candidate. And if Republicans run a poor one, they can lose those districts."
Dabakis, however, said the GOP appears to have worked hard to draw lines that benefit it. He wondered aloud to the committee how that map had appeared only last week, and suggested that it may have been pushed by the National Republican Committee to local lawmakers to help ensure GOP wins.
Sumsion scoffed at that. He said he and other Republicans drew it locally as a compromise among many ideas, and that is why it appeared only recently.
Mary Bishop, chairwoman of the Salt Lake County Democratic Party, said Republicans again are placing Salt Lake City with faraway places like St. George. "It pleases neither St. George nor Salt Lake. We are not a community of interest, so why do we keep doing this?"
The Redistricting Committee plans to meet again on Thursday at 10 a.m. to discuss any feedback it receives from the public about its final maps, and allow some quick alterations then.
The full Legislature is scheduled to meet in a special session beginning on Monday to debate and adopt final plans for Congress, the Legislature and the state school board. Reform groups are planning a rally that day in the Capitol Rotunda to protest the current proposals.
The new map is available on the committee's website, redistrictutah.com, under the title of "Congress: Sumsion 06 Modified A."