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Between the Lines: The Five Stages of Grief

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After Michigan Republicans spliced Rep. John Conyers’ Detroit-based district, the 24-term Democrat — in a clear case of denial — tried to release his own proposal to redraw the lines.

Redistricting is a fact of life in Congress.

Every decade, some House districts perish — while the boundaries of other districts are overhauled, dismantled and moved.

The result? Many Members experience grief through denial, anger, bargaining and depression. Most Members accept their fate eventually — but some do not.

Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced the Five Stages of Grief more than 40 years ago. We applied the same rubric for Members of Congress who experience grief from redistricting — one of the most common causes of death for a political career this cycle.

1. Denial: a Member’s state of disbelief or defiance over what has happened, or what will happen, to his district.

Political veterans have heard these excuses before: “My district won’t change that much,” “I have friends in the state Legislature watching out for me,” “They can’t alter my district because there’s a lake on the east side.”

But no district is an island in the mapmaking process — not even Hawaii. Only Members from states with at-large districts are spared the five stages of redistricting grief.

The symptoms of denial are obvious, such as when a Member believes he can control the shape of his new district. For example, after Michigan Republicans spliced Rep. John Conyers’ Detroit-based district, the 24-term Democrat tried to release his own proposal to redraw the lines. Meanwhile, Michigan Republicans’ map sailed through the Legislature.

2. Anger: a Member’s initial irate reaction to the changes to his district.

Illinois Republicans vehemently protested Democrats’ proposed map that uprooted many of them from their current districts. They called the Democratic-drawn map “an attempt to undo the results of the elections.”

Similarly, Texas Republicans annihilated the district of Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D). A livid Doggett immediately accused Republicans in the Legislature of exacting revenge for the last redraw.

However, no Member experienced this stage more publicly than Rep. Russ Carnahan (D). The Missouri Legislature passed a new map that eliminated Carnahan’s district, so he asked fellow Missourian Rep. William Lacy Clay (D) to urge the Democratic governor to veto the proposal. Clay reportedly stopped returning his calls, and Carnahan leveled a four-letter expletive at him while on the House floor.

3. Bargaining: when Members try to negotiate their new district with others to attempt to save their seats.

Rep. Jim Matheson (D) is no doubt deep in this stage. Utah Republicans will redraw his state’s map, and they could change his district easily to include more Republicans, making it more difficult for Matheson to win re-election.

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