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Redistricting: the opening bids are laid on the table

Tim Ceis visits Crosscut Credit: Michele Matassa Flores

Legislation, the old saying goes, is like making sausage; you may like the final product, but you won’t want to see it made. That goes in spades for the redrawing of lines for congressional and legislative districts, a task that comes around with every census.

Washington evidently saw enough of a very public and partisan sausage-making. So, in 1983, voters created a “citizen panel” to draw the lines. That organization, the Washington State Redistricting Commission, has four voting members, appointed by Democratic and Republican legislative leadership, citizens experienced in politics but not currently holding office. Each of the four unveiled proposed district maps Tuesday.

Not surprisingly, some of the most innovative and partisan ideas came from the state’s most experienced sausage maker, former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton. Dating to 1963, when Republican leaders in the Legislature appointed the “Young Turk” to head their redistricting efforts, Gorton has been the “go-to guy” for the party when it comes to redistricting. At age 83, he is one of the two Republican members of the bipartisan panel, and the Young Turk hasn’t lost a step.

Gorton unveiled a congressional district that runs across the northern tier of the state from the San Juan Islands to Ferry County, connected by a highway that’s only open a few months in the summer and tying “Left Coast” liberals to ranch conservatives and eviscerating the district now served by Rep. Rick Larsen, an Everett Democrat.

It was the most dramatic proposal in geographic terms and could result in a switch of the district to Republican hands, but the other three commissioners proposed much different ideas for the Northwest corner of the state. All three would keep the bulk of Larsen’s 2nd District relatively intact.

Although the Gorton plan would erase the Democratic edge in Larsen’s current district, the new “northern tier” district would be highly competitive. In the narrow 2008 gubernatorial race, Republican Dino Rossi won the “northern tier” counties by only 2,586 votes, the margin coming east of the Cascades. Population growth in the more-liberal Puget Sound counties is much greater than in the eastern counties, and the bulk of voters would be in the western counties.

Most of the early news coverage has focused on an apparent majority favoring a “majority-minority” congressional district in central and south Seattle, and south King County, which could lead to an African-American, Asian-American, or Latino representing the state in Congress. Three of the four commissioners drew such a district, although lines differ.

“I think we’re cautiously optimistic,” Pramila Jayapal, executive director of OneAmerica, a Seattle-based group that works with immigrants and pushed hard for the majority-minority district, told, “We’re not just talking about a map with a bunch of lines. It’s really the future of our communities.”

Redistricting lines for legislative districts may also give minority voters a greater chance of representation in Central Washington, where Latino voters have increased, but opportunity for electoral victory has been limited. A new 15th District would have up to 59 percent Latino voters, in plans that seem to be favored by at least three commissioners, including Gorton. The district runs south of Yakima to the Columbia River and is now in Republican hands.

Washington gained a tenth congressional seat in the 2010 census, making the task of redistricting more important as each party attempts to add a seat to the current lineup of five Democrats and four Republicans.

Examination of the plans submitted by the four commissioners — Republicans Gorton and Tom Huff, and Democrats Tim Ceis and Dean Foster — appear to favor four relatively safe seats for each party, with disposition of Larsen’s seat and the drawing of new lines in south Puget Sound likely to produce the most competition.

For Republicans, most of the plans seem to provide assurance for Reps. Doc Hastings and Cathy McMorris-Rodgers east of the Cascades, Jamie Herrara-Beutler in Southwest Washington, and Dave Reichert in eastern King County. Commissioners seem inclined to extend Reichert’s District 8 across the Cascades into Republican territory, shedding some Democratic voters in south King County. McMorris-Rodgers loses some conservative areas as her district is reduced in size; her district continues to be centered on Spokane, where Democrats have a base, and Pullman, also with Democratic voters. Her 5th District remains Republican but could be more competitive. Herrara-Beutler’s district is Vancouver-centric and probably loses Olympia, making it more strongly Republican.

Democratic seats in Congress have always centered on Puget Sound, and that will not change, although new lines will cause candidates to scramble. Gorton and Huff cut into Rep. Jim McDermott’s solidly Democratic 7th District. For the present, numbers will have little meaning in 2012 congressional districts, and campaign plans will rely even more heavily than usual on candidate personalities as the Legislature grinds out a final version of the plan.

Negotiations between the four commissioners will be guided by the non-voting Commission chair, Lura Powell, a chemist who lives in Richland and is a former President and CEO of Advanced Imaging Technologies, Inc. She was selected by the four voting members.

Commissioners must submit a plan favored by at least three members by Jan. 1, and the Legislature has until Feb. 10 to consider minor amendments. The Legislature is limited by law on amendments it can make and a 2/3 super-majority of both houses is needed for approval.

Should the Commission deadlock and fail to adopt a plan, the Washington Supreme Court is handed the job, with a March 1 deadline to draft a plan for the Legislature. Only when districting legislation is passed can campaigners be certain of their new districts. All of the commissioners are experienced in politics, and there is a hope to act well before the deadlines for approval, to give candidates more campaign time.

Much of the most intense political maneuvering among commissioners is likely to center on legislative districting. Unlike the congressional plan, no additional legislative seats are involved, making the line-drawing a zero-sum game. At the margins and certain to come into the negotiations are proposals by Ceis that could unseat up to 15 Republican legislators, and a plan by Gorton to dilute the Democratic precincts in Sen. Lisa Brown’s Spokane district, the last Democratic legislative seat in Eastern Washington.

One public hearing will accompany the negotiations process, on Oct. 11 in Olympia, time and place to be determined. The Commission encourages comments through its Web page; on the Maps section each commissioner’s proposal is mapped out and there is a link to enter comments. In the last several months the Commission has held hearings across the state and reviewed about 20 proposals from groups and individuals as well as comments online and by mail.

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