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Redistricting Doesn’t Always Go as Planned

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A Denver district was jokingly nicknamed for now-Rep. Ed Perlmutter during the last round of redistricting, but the Colorado Democrat ended up skipping the race. He ran and won four years later.

“It was drawn to be an African-American seat and a Democratic seat in that election. It was neither,” Crow told Roll Call recently. Two years later, in 2004, Democrats won the seat when Athens-Clarke County Commissioner John Barrow unseated Burns. But over a decade of elections, the district never elected a black candidate.

This time around, Republicans control the redistricting process in almost 20 states (including Georgia) and almost four times the number of Congressional districts where Democrats are in charge.

The key for both parties is to draw maps not based just on past election results but to understand future voting trends in order to control districts for the next 10 years. But map-makers can’t take every contingency into account.

A decade ago, like today, Florida stood to gain two districts. Republicans were in control of the redistricting process and, according to conventional wisdom, then-state Speaker Tom Feeney (R) and his redistricting chairman, Mario Diaz-Balart (R), drew districts that were favorable to them.

“Never denied it, because if I did, it wouldn’t do any good,” Feeney said with a laugh in a recent interview with Roll Call. “Everyone believes it now, so what good is it?” Feeney won the inaugural race in the newly created 24th district with almost 62 percent in 2002.

But even though Feeney was unopposed two years later and re-elected comfortably in 2006, he lost his seat in 2008 when a second Democratic wave developed and Democrats pounded him for a trip to Scotland he took with infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Republicans recaptured the seat in November when Sandy Adams defeated Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D).

Even though he’s out of office now, Feeney is a veteran of two redistricting cycles and knows what many of these map-making legislators are going through.

“Ambitions abound,” Feeney said, particularly in states like Florida where term limits force legislators to explore higher office. With so many aspiring Members of Congress and a limited number of districts, Feeney described the process of running for Congress in a redistricting year as “playing a game of musical chairs blindfolded” because the maps won’t be finalized until much later in the cycle.

A similar situation might play out this time in Nevada where three Democrats — former Rep. Dina Titus, state Speaker John Oceguera and state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford — appear to be interested in two districts anchored in the Clark County suburbs. There might be a seat for everyone if Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) runs for Senate.

Even though politics is an obvious part of the redistricting process, Feeney cautioned that knowing the rules and the Department of Justice guidelines should be the primary concern.

“The last thing you want is to work hard on a map and have it thrown out, or have a stalemate,” Feeney said.

That’s part of what happened in Colorado a decade ago. Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature couldn’t agree on a new map, so a district judge selected a map for them.

Even though Democrats weren’t in control of the redistricting process, the newly created 7th district was nicknamed the “Perlmutter District” after state Senate President Ed Perlmutter (D). The Jefferson County Democrat was viewed as the best candidate to run in the competitive district in the Denver suburbs.

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