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When Redistricting’s All in the Family

Susan Walsh/Associated Press
State House Speaker Ben Luján (left next to Speaker John Boehner) controls redistricting in New Mexico. Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Luján (right) is the state lawmaker’s son.

For many current and former Members of Congress, redistricting is a family affair and House district boundaries run as thick as bloodlines.

It's not uncommon for state lawmakers to hand-carve districts for their political allies in Congress during the once-in-a-decade mapmaking process.

It's much less common when they share a last name.

But this cycle, state lawmakers in Indiana, Michigan and New Mexico are tasked with redrawing House districts that will determine a family's political posterity.

Rep. Dan Burton's (R-Ind.) brother, Woody Burton, serves on the redistricting committee in the Hoosier State Legislature, which completed its new Congressional map in April.

"I'm sure Woody had some influence because, obviously, if your older brother is a Congressman, that enhances your position in the Legislature," said Brian Howey, an independent political analyst in Indiana.

The new map was widely viewed as helpful to Hoosier Republicans, including Burton, who won less than 30 percent of the vote against six Republicans in the primary last year. The new map moves three of his four top primary competitors into other Congressional districts.

Woody Burton told Roll Call that he talked with his brother before the Congressional maps were drawn and passed along his comments to the redistricting committee.

"We talked about it," Woody Burton said. "He said, 'All I wanted is to be treated fair.'"

Woody Burton cautioned that while he offered his input on the new Congressional map, he did not personally draw the new boundaries saying he didn't even see the final maps until the day before the first committee hearing.

Nonetheless, the Congressman's strongest competitor in the 2010 primary, Luke Messer, is now running for the open 6th district seat instead. Rep. Burton will now face a primary challenge from the one challenger who stayed put in the district, former Marion County Coroner John McGoff. McGoff has challenged the Congressman twice before.

In Michigan, a former Member's son will attempt to take back the House seat his family lost two cycles ago. Former Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R) lost a bid to Rep. Gary Peters (D) in 2008. Now the Republican's son, state Rep. Marty Knollenberg (R), is on the redistricting committee in the Michigan Legislature.

Marty Knollenberg has already announced he will run for Congress, and with his plum spot on the redistricting committee, he will have major pull in what the new Congressional map will look like in the GOP-controlled Legislature. The state is losing a House seat in 2012. Peters is expected to be moved into the same district as one of his Democratic colleagues, most likely Rep. Sander Levin, although an official map will not be released for another couple of weeks.

"Obviously, he's highly motivated to get revenge for his father. He's pretty bitter," said Bill Ballenger, a nonpartisan political analyst based in Michigan. "I didn't think there's any question that he would love to seek revenge on behalf of his father if the circumstances are right especially if it's against Peters."

Marty Knollenberg who did not return a request for an interview is term-limited at the state level, so this is his best opportunity to control the boundaries of what he hopes will be his future district.

In New Mexico, two-term Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Luján's father is in a position to help shore up his son's district if necessary. Luján's father, Ben Luján, is New Mexico's Speaker of the House and holds the keys to whatever new Congressional map passes through his chamber.

Rep. Luján serves in solid Democratic territory, so it's unlikely the competitiveness of his district would change without drastic alterations to the state's Congressional map. However, the Congressman is in a position to shed some of his Democratic voters to the competitive 1st district, which will be an open seat in 2012.

"Since now he's in Congress, there's not much his father can do in redistricting that can really help him or hurt him," said Stephen Clermont, a Democratic pollster who works extensively in New Mexico. "The question for Luján is can he give away some of those Democratic precincts to the first district or does he defensively hold on to what he has, because if no real changes are made to his district, he can essentially be there for however long he wants?"

Redistricting was practically a family business in California for decades.

In the past, House Democrats hired the brother of Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), political consultant Michael Berman, for a flat fee of $20,000 to act on their behalf during the mapmaking. It was worth the price tag for California's Democratic Members, many of whom have served in safe, gerrymandered districts for decades.

Michael Berman told Roll Call that no one accused the family of nepotism when he was in charge of the lines.

"I was hired by the entire California state Senate, both Democrats and Republicans, and also hired by the Democratic Delegation of Congress," he said. "I've been doing this now for 40 years; everybody knew who I was."

Nonetheless, California voters approved an amendment to create the California Citizens Redistricting Commission an independent panel to head up the mapmaking this cycle.

But there have also been times when familial ties have backfired during redistricting.

In 2002, Democrats controlled the redistricting process in Georgia, and state Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker drew the lines to create the perfect opportunity for his son, businessman Charles "Champ" Walker, to run in a heavily Democratic district. But from the start of the race, Champ Walker was hit with questions about his ethics and wound up losing to Rep. Max Burns (R) in the heavily Democratic district.

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