The Limbo Party 

Redistricting: How low can Utah Dems go?

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Opportunities—and, sometimes, dramatic shifts in behavior—stem from hitting rock bottom. Utah’s Democratic Party is packed with members who see their lots just that way—that the party can’t get any worse than it is. In the 2010 election, Utah Democrats reached a new low. Their total of 24 seats in the House and Senate of the Utah Legislature “bested” their other worst performance of the decade, back in 2002, when Democrats had to adapt to the newly redrawn boundaries that the Republican majority had gerrymandered in its favor. Even then, Democrats managed to eke out 26 seats in the Legislature.

A decade later, with redistricting again looming, many Democrats possess a strange hopefulness that they are at rock bottom, that the party will awaken to bluer skies and a new and invigorated strategy.

There’s a struggle in the party, however, over how to accomplish that strategy, and an insurgent progressive wing of the party is hoping to make some changes. Some focus on reconnecting Utah voters with core Democratic values like fair wages and affordable health care, while others argue that appealing to those Utahns who already vote—who are heavily conservative—is exactly what put Democrats in the gutter in the first place. Rather than convincing conservatives and swing voters to change parties, insurgent Democrats want the party to focus on changing minds about voting among the young and poor.

“Barack Obama carried this county by nearly 500 votes,” says Robert Comstock, a progressive candidate for state Democratic Party chair. “Then why is it that Republicans out-represent the Democrats 8 to 1 in [their respective] county conventions? Where are those Democrats who voted for Obama? They’re not involved because they have not been recruited; they have not been made to feel welcome.”

Behind the scenes, however, is the one trick Republicans still have up their sleeves to push the Democrats right through the rock bottom to their molten lava core, or at very least, to keep the minority party on its knees: redistricting.

It’s déja vu for University of Utah political science professor Tim Chambless. At a November screening of the documentary Gerrymandering at the Salt Lake City Main Library, he told the crowd, “Ten years ago, when we were going through this [redistricting] process, I asked legislators to come speak to my … class. I had half a dozen Democrats who were very willing to come to my class. I couldn’t get a Republican from the majority party to come to speak to my class. I finally got [former Rep. Ron Bigelow] from West Valley City … [who] quite candidly said, ‘It’s a messy process. It’s about politics. It’s about power, and frankly, we’d like to hold on to power. So, we’ll draw the districts in such a way to maintain power.’”

The pejorative term “gerrymandering” refers to redrawing district boundaries with an eye to benefiting one party or candidate and hurting another—the most impactful way to cheat legally in American politics. After 2001’s redistricting, even the conservative editorial board at The Wall Street Journal flogged the Republican-controlled Utah Legislature for its flagrant gerrymandering.

It’s been more than three decades since the Democrats controlled either chamber of the Legislature. They also have failed to remove the Republicans’ super-majority. Still limping after an abysmal 2010 election, the most high-profile Democrats in Utah, however, don’t have strategies specific to overcoming what they expect to come from redistricting, aside from basic advice like, “Don’t let the opponent frame the debate.” But there’s an odd optimism springing from Democrats who have almost nothing to lose. “I don’t know that [Republicans] can do more damage than they’ve done in the past in redistricting,” says former Rep. Neil Hansen, D-Ogden, who lost his seat in 2010. “It can get worse, but the people of Utah, should they study the issues, could come to realize that Democrats are not the evil of this state—then, we can win.”

Gerry What?
Gerrymandering took its name from a 19th-century Massachusetts governor, Elbridge Gerry, whose redrawn district boundaries were said to have created one district so contorted that it was shaped like a salamander (Gerry salamander = gerrymander). Some use the term to describe federally required “majority minority” districts that protect racial minorities from having their communities spliced into multiple pieces, which happened frequently prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Other requirements, like grouping “communities of interest” into just one district, however, are more flexible and subject to less stringent oversight.

It may be difficult to see how drawing district boundaries can be so powerful, but imagine if one football team—the one that was winning—had the privilege of choosing its opponent’s end zone after each quarter. The team that’s losing might be 5 yards from scoring a touchdown as the quarter mark passes, and then suddenly find its end zone has moved 95 yards behind them.

Though no less impactful than moving a football end zone, gerrymandering is considerably more complicated and, by virtue of its complexity, also much sneakier. Instead of two end zones, Utah has 75 state House districts, 29 for the state Senate, and four congressional districts that a committee of lawmakers—appointed almost exclusively by the majority Republicans—will redraw.

Several public meetings are scheduled for the summer throughout Utah. Legislators have promised a Website where citizens will be able to draw their own redistricting map if they want to submit suggestions. (The meeting schedule and more redistricting committee information can be found at http://le.utah.gov/asp/interim/Commit.asp?Year=2011&Com=SPERDT )

Districts can be manipulated quite precisely to shift the balance of voters who usually weigh in at 55 percent Democrat to one that is only 49 percent Democrat. Sometimes, Democrats can be shifted into a neighboring district that normally votes 60 percent Republican, so while Democrats might have been losing one district 60 to 40 and winning the other district 55 to 45, after redistricting, they might lose both districts by 54 to 46 and 51 to 49. The full power of gerrymandering can be realized by expanding that concept to more than 100 districts that fit like jigsaw puzzle pieces across a map of Utah.

A game at ReDistrictingGame.com demonstrates in a fun, albeit complex, way how moving boundaries subtly can substantially optimize a voting map for one party, even if all the voters continue to vote in the same way they did prior to the redistricting.

In Salt Lake City, redistricting has resulted in some strange boundaries. One might expect that Salt Lake City residents on the east and west side have more in common with one another than, say, folks who live on the northern or southern border of the state, and thus, should be represented by the same congressperson. But the representative in Washington, D.C., for all of southern Utah, from St. George to Mexican Hat and Moab to Cedar City, is a guy who lives by the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City: Democrat Jim Matheson. And yet, residents of Glendale, Rose Park and other west-side Salt Lake City neighborhoods are represented not by relatively nearby neighbor Matheson, but by Rep. Rob Bishop, who lives an hour north in Brigham City.

The Epitome
The powers of gerrymandering are not limitless, however. At least one Democrat has survived all that the Republican majority could throw at him. Many old-school party members see U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson as a role model for how a Democrat can win in Utah, while the more progressive wing sees him as the epitome of what is wrong not just with their party, but with the United States government generally.

The party’s emerging divide showed itself in 2009 when “Bidder 70” environmental activist Tim DeChristopher and others tapped Claudia Wright as the “Citizens Candidate” to oust Matheson in the party primary. While Wright lost the primary, they will try to defeat Matheson again, DeChristopher says.

“I’ll support anyone who runs against him for any office,” DeChristopher says, “[because] he’s more effective than any Republican at undermining progressive reforms, at defending the fossil-fuel industry and standing in the way of clean energy. He’s been able to push a corporate agenda that Republicans could never get passed because they’d get more backlash. But Democratic [leaders] have been really good at convincing progressive and Democratic supporters not to attack Democratic legislators no matter what they do, so I think that gives him pretty free rein.”

Representing the establishment wing, outgoing party chairman Wayne Holland says Matheson is a brilliant politician who admirably does what’s nearly impossible: represent his highly politically diverse district and remain very popular. Others agree. “I think Jim Matheson has a great deal to teach the party,” says Jim Dabakis, who is hoping to fill Holland’s shoes as state party chair.

Ogden’s former Rep. Hansen says much the same: “To me, [Matheson]’s a classic example of how a Democrat can win in Utah. He is very mainstream.”

Those strange boundaries on Utah’s 2nd District are not chaos or error, Matheson says, but a carefully crafted strategy to oust him by cleaving some of his west-side Salt Lake City supporters and putting them in a district where their votes would be invisible beneath a larger tide of northern Utah Republican votes. Even though it didn’t really work last time, will ousting Matheson with tricky lines be the Republicans’ primary objective again? “I’d be surprised if it wasn’t,” Matheson says. “It’s probably one of the primary factors.”

State Rep. Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, the former House Speaker, says fast-growing southern Utah deserves its “own” representative who it doesn’t have to share with Wasatch Front communities. “The way the [2nd] District is divided, it’s saying … the Wasatch Front will decide who represents [southern Utahns] in Congress. … Our vote down here has always been set aside by a larger vote in Salt Lake County.” Clark has been named as a possible candidate for Congress—depending on the boundaries, he may have to challenge Matheson to do it—but says it’s too early to declare his interest in running.

But creating a southern-Utah-heavy district would leave only three more districts to cover the rest of the state. Many Democrats suspect that Clark won’t get his way.

What’s to Come
Though it’s unclear exactly how the districts will change, there’s some information available to guess at how they may be drawn.

First, for legislative seats, census data show that growth along Salt Lake City’s east bench—a Democratic-leaning area—has stalled in the past decade even as the southwest suburbs of Salt Lake County and the St. George area—both Republican-leaning areas—have grown substantially.

“Even if the redistricting were done in a totally benign, apolitical way, there would probably be fewer districts [on the east bench] where Democrats traditionally win seats,” Matheson says.

Adds Clark: “Currently, there are 6.3 [state] representatives for Salt Lake City, meaning some of those carry off in fringe areas where the boundaries aren’t exactly right. … In order for the representation to be equal, Salt Lake City is going to be closer to 4.3, not 6.3. It gets to be complex geography, but the math is very simple.”

Utah’s Hispanic or Latino population—usually believed to lean Democrat—increased 77 percent in Utah, but still accounts for just 13 percent of the population overall.

Second, Utah almost had enough population in 2001 to justify a fourth seat in Congress, prompting a decade-long debate in which Utah lawmakers hoped the Beehive State might be granted a fourth seat well before the 2011 redistricting. That didn’t happen. But in 2006, a so-called “Plan L” map was approved by the Legislature. That map split the Wasatch Front four ways, did not create a seat dominated by southern Utah voters, and also created what would undoubtedly be a more liberal district than any that currently exist—consisting of most of Salt Lake, Summit and Morgan counties.

Curtis Haring is the former executive director of the Fair Boundaries Coalition, a now-defunct group that, in 2009 and 2010, tried to create an independent redistricting commission but failed to get enough signatures for a ballot initiative to create one. On his Website, BlueInRed Zion.com, Haring has created maps that he would consider fair and appropriate, as well as a map that would “minimize the little power liberals have in this state by ensuring that their votes get diluted as much as possible by more conservative voters.”

His “fair” map keeps all of Salt Lake County in one district, except Sandy and Draper—which would be attached to Utah County. His “fair” map also puts Herriman and Bluffdale into a district that would encompass basically all of Utah outside the Wasatch Front. The last district would encompass Davis, Weber, Cache, Rich and Morgan counties.

His theoretical map that would minimize liberals’ influence in congressional elections splits Salt Lake County and City into four almost-equal parts, maintaining the “urban/rural mix” that lawmakers espoused in 2001 when the state’s most populous county was split three ways. To justify splitting Salt Lake County three ways, defenders of the current district said rural districts would be better represented not if they had their own representative, but if all three had some rural constituents to serve.

Haring says there is no direct way for residents to impact the redistricting process, but they can stay informed, attend public meetings about the redistricting proposals and even make their own suggestions to lawmakers. He suspects lawmakers will disappoint him more this year than in 2001. “My gut says it’s going to be worse if only because Republicans, being the main line drawers, have gotten even more entrenched and have more power than they did 10 years ago.”

Matheson is similarly cynical that the outcry that resulted from the 2001 process will not result in a map more favorable to the minority party. “Quite frankly, I’m not here to sound too pessimistic, but I have no reason to believe it’ll be done any differently than it was last time.”

Party Shifts
The political landscape beneath Democrats will shift even as the Utah Democratic Party shifts itself. Though many talk about the same old party values, like fair wages, affordable health care and environmental protection, new values will no doubt be defined as new leadership is ushered in.

Party Chair Holland, who’s held the seat since 2005, is not running for re-election. The labor-union leader’s steering of the party strategy looked brilliant after 2008 when Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson to win Salt Lake County. In local races, Democrats picked up one state Senate seat as well as three state House seats in Sandy—including the one belonging to then House Speaker Greg Curtis—and Salt Lake County’s Democratic mayor, Peter Corroon, was re-elected.

Those pickups in the Legislature, however, were lost in 2010, and the bleeding spread: In all, one Democratic senator and five Democratic representatives lost their seats—including Tooele’s Jim Gowans who had held his seat since 1992. As a result, Republicans now hold a 58-17 edge in the House and 22-7 edge in the Senate, representing the Democrats’ most depleted caucuses of the decade.

“I don’t think the [tea-party momentum heading into 2010] will last, so 2012 is a good year for us to get back on track,” Holland says. But Holland will be working on the Western States Finance Committee for Obama’s re-election, not on local Utah politics. His chairmanship will be assumed by one of two candidates for party chair: queer-rights activist Jim Dabakis or progressive middle-school teacher Robert Comstock.

Many Democrats accuse their party of mimicking Republicans to win votes and hope to see that change. For example, former Matheson challenger Claudia Wright forcefully criticized Republican proposals for state immigration reform presented at the 2011 legislative session. But Wright has little nice to say about state Democrats’ own immigration plans, which she said were “not in line with Democratic values,” particularly the bill sponsored by Salt Lake City Democratic Sen. Luz Robles that would have basically required legal immigrants to carry identity documents at all times.

“There’s already a change under way,” Wright says. “Candidates who are coming forward in the county and state [Democratic Party] elections are progressive candidates who are tired of, essentially, the defensive methods used by the Democratic Party.” Wright criticizes Holland and other Democrats for being too meek and not forcefully exposing what she sees as Republican bad behavior. “They believe [Democrats] have to act like Republicans to get elected. I believe, in fact, we have to put out better policies and be very vocal about it and more consistent.”

Dabakis agrees that Democrats must be more aggressive and communicate better, but he parts ways with Wright-types on his view of Matheson. Matheson is still the best Rorschach test in liberal Utah politics. Utah Democrats either respect him and urge candidates to emulate him or accuse him of being in bed with corporations and illustrating what is wrong with American politics.

While Dabakis focuses much of his time on raising money for Democrats to “get to financial parity” with Republicans in the state—the wealthy businessman and art dealer certainly has the contacts for that—his opponent, Comstock, focuses on the poor. Democrats can win a majority in Utah, Comstock says, “if we become the party that’s accessible to the lower-middle class, the working poor. We have not made ourselves welcoming.” Comstock envisions a future Utah Democratic Party more embracing of those willing to stage an inter-party fight. “It was an incestuous good-ol’-boys club that kept out Claudia [Wright] because the leadership of the party … wanted to be gatekeepers to the party.”

Comstock wants to revive the Democrats through recruitment of new members. While Comstock says Dabakis “represents a wealthy candidate coming into politics because he has the time, money and resources,” Comstock sees himself as “a grass-roots candidate … [who’s] desperately concerned with the fact that the Democratic Party is not representing the voice of the people.”

Other insider-vs.-outsider battles for Democratic Party leadership are brewing. Former Wright campaign volunteer and state transportation engineer Deb Henry, of Salt Lake City, is seeking the vice chair position against Utah AFL-CIO president Jim Judd.

For secretary, former Salt Lake County Council candidate for District 2 Paul Pugmire faces off against former Democratic Party Chair Megan Risbon and party-politics newcomer Robert Henline, who pens a regular column in Q Salt Lake, Utah’s queer weekly newspaper, writes The Non-Partisan blog and even has written a few blogs on CityWeekly.net.

For treasurer, party insiders Rob Miller and John Rendell will face off.

Wright says she’s pleased with candidates showing up for county party positions as well, and she predicts the Utah Democratic Party after the July 16, 2011, organizing convention—when party elections take place—will be a new mix of young blood and “old guard.”

But will the infusion of new faces create the “big changes” Wright expects and hopes for? After all, it’s not as if Democrats didn’t have fiery progressives before now. Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson represented that strong-worded wing of the party but had few companions in his party known for their tough talk. Will the Democrats get tougher, more wily, more, well … popular? With their lowest numbers in years and gerrymandering on the way, is there anything they can do?

Strategy Planning
Upon telling Rep. Jim Matheson’s longtime spokeswoman, Alyson Heyrend, that this article would be partially about Democrats’ strategy over the past decade to make the best lemonade out of gerrymander lemons, she says, “I don’t think there was a strategy. … I lived through it. I don’t recall much of a strategy.”

After talking to a dozen prominent Utah Democrats, there’s not a clearly articulated plan for what comes after 2011 either, despite many Democrats’ calls for better messaging and organization. Matheson, Wright, Dabakis, Corroon and Holland all talk about communicating more clearly with voters about Democratic values and preventing the opposition from defining the Democrats’ image, but that’s just Politics 101—not really a strategy at all—and hardly keys into the decade-long disadvantage presented by redistricting.

After Matheson, the state’s highest-profile elected Democrat is Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon. He proposes a strategy that would, basically, build Democratic candidates from the ground up, much like his rise. “I want to have a good ‘farm team,’ and you win by hitting singles and doubles, not home runs. So, I think the best strategy would be a 29-county strategy or something like that, where we work very hard to get people into municipal government and work their way up to state government and federal government,” he says.

Wright echoes Comstock, urging massive voter-registration drives to increase party membership and educate potential voters. Matheson offers the rudimentary advice that Democratic candidates must make voters “feel they know you as an individual” by walking voting districts door to door.

The most frequently stated strategic idea Democrats currently espouse is actually just a hope that the Republican majority will fail. “Any time one party is in total power for too many years, I think citizens finally decide it’s not good government to have one group totally controlling everything,” Hansen says. Wright says the next decade may be exactly the same for Democrats, but that voters may come to think “[Republicans] have [run] far enough amok, having the dominance of one-party rule … [that] people will vote Republicans out of office.”

One thing is clear: Even if Republicans play it straight on redistricting, Democrats will be a minority. But simply removing the Republican super-majority in the Legislature—needing four House seats to do so—would be a huge accomplishment.

Salt Lake County—where Republicans hold a 5-4 majority on the council—created an independent, bipartisan redistricting committee to redraw their district lines, so the council members themselves will not influence their district boundaries, as they did in 2000. Redistricting results of 2000 have since led to the committee chairwoman, former Republican mayor of Taylorsville, Janice Auger Rasmussen, to comment on how council members in 2000 redrew their own boundaries: The 2000 lines have District 4 growing like a cancer into District 6, with northwest Salt Lake City represented in the same all-west-side district as Herriman, Bluffdale and Riverton. “I respect these people,” Auger Rasmussen said, “but some of the things they did horrify me.”

With mayors Corroon and Ralph Becker at the helm of Salt Lake County and City, respectively, Utah’s capital city, for now, remains a stronghold for Democrats. But with Republicans shrewdly calling the shots with brass-knuckled, self-serving gerrymandering at the state level and Democrats playing fair in the one county they govern, the blue party’s future in one of the reddest states may be limp for the foreseeable future.

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