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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.

Meanwhile, the Democrat is contemplating running statewide if his district changes too much. That’s a prospect that could prove to be a pain for Republicans — and therefore is an effective bargaining chip for Matheson.

Bargaining even works sometimes. The new Illinois map initially moved Rep. John Shimkus (R) into a competitive district spanning the center of the state. But Shimkus worked with his Democratic allies in the state Legislature and an amendment passed at the last minute that moved his home into a safer GOP district that includes the southeastern part of the state.

4. Depression: a melancholy state frequently exhibited during litigation. The courts have taken control of the mapmaking process, or the Member has sued over his new district. Now all he can do is wait for a third party to decide his fate.

The most serious cases are ongoing in Colorado and Minnesota. Gridlock between the governor and state legislatures in those states forced courts to take up the maps.

However, the most extreme case of depression might be on the horizon. The new Florida map is far from being redrawn and released, but there’s already litigation over the process. Some redistricting experts speculate that court cases over the new map could push its resolution until after the November 2012 elections.

It certainly doesn’t appear that there will be much sunshine in the state during redistricting.

5. Acceptance: when Members finally reconcile their political options and make a decision about their future.

Not every Member reaches this stage,  but experts say those who do accept their new districts are the most successful.

Rep. Timothy Johnson (R) accepted his future quickly and has already rented an apartment in his new district. Meanwhile, all of his Illinois GOP colleagues seem frozen and are keeping mum about their options while the map goes to court.

Rep. Joe Donnelly (D) announced he would run for Senate a couple of weeks after the new Congressional map passed in Indiana. Republicans redrew his House district to make it more difficult for Donnelly to win re-election.

Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) is reportedly now in the mix for a new job as athletic director at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Shuler will likely find out Friday what his redrawn district will look like and how many more Republican voters it will have thanks to the GOP mapmakers in the state Legislature. That could heavily affect his decision as he weighs his future.

Send news items on redistricting to Between the Lines here.

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