The Limbo Party 

Redistricting: How low can Utah Dems go?

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A game at 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, 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.”

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Jesse Fruhwirth

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