AUGUSTA — Cathy Newell told a panel of state lawmakers charged with redrawing the lines for Maine's U.S. House seats that Oxford County residents strongly identify with the 2nd Congressional District.
The Greenwood resident is a member of a congressional redistricting commission, which met Monday at the State House in an effort to carve out new boundaries for Maine's two congressional districts based on the latest census population data.
The Democrat opposes a Republican plan to transplant residents in Oxford and Androscoggin counties, as well as in 10 communities in Franklin County from the 2nd District to the 1st.
Democrats and Republicans drew their first lines in the sand at Monday's meeting, but those lines likely will be redrawn leading up to next month's scheduled special session vote by the full Legislature. The two parties' respective caucuses are hoping to come to consensus on a plan by Friday in preparation for a public hearing Tuesday.
Newell, who also serves as chairwoman of the Oxford County Democrats, made a pitch for keeping Oxford County in the 2nd District where, she argued, the communities have similar cultural and socioeconomic interests.
"I think we have a tremendous interest in the 2nd District" economically, including the northern forest and the tourism and ski industries, she said.
A high percentage of veterans and seniors as well as the federal agencies and congressional staffs that serve those populations can be found in the 2nd District, she said. The blue collar jobs found in rural Maine and in mill town communities such as Lewiston and Rumford forge a connection that also has strong ties in the tri-county region of the 2nd District, she said.
Newell said she plans to poll the local chambers of commerce as well as local hospitals and other entities on the competing parties' proposals.
Moreover, Newell said it was "extremely important" to keep not only Oxford County, but Androscoggin and Franklin counties also in the same district.
"There is a huge community of interest" in the central and western communities of the tri-county region, she said.
The bipartisan commission must find a way to balance the populations of the two congressional districts, which fell out of balance between the 2000 census and the one recorded in 2010, when the 1st District swelled to 668,515, compared to the 2nd, which only expanded to 659,846, a difference of 8,669 residents. The redistricting effort is aimed at equalizing the populations of both districts. A federal court case stresses the need to have new districts in place before the general elections in November 2012.
In the Democrats' plan, the town of Vassalboro in Kennebec County would move from the 1st District to the 2nd, a shift of 4,340 residents. Under that scenario, the two districts would continue to have unequal populations, a difference of 11 residents. Kennebec County has had a divided district since 1993.
Democrats argue their plan maintains compact and contiguous communities and displaces from their current districts as few residents as possible.
Republicans say their plan comes closest to dividing the two districts evenly, with the population of the 1st District outnumbering its counterpart by only one resident.
"There's a very clear set of standards in federal and state law that should dictate how the new districts should be drawn," Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, said.
"We have a hard time understanding how the Republican plan addresses all of the criteria in law," said Goodall, a lawyer, after the meeting had adjourned. During the meeting, Goodall questioned whether Republicans were negotiating in good faith when their plan shifted so many voters from one district to another, including redistricting U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, a resident of North Haven, out of her congressional district.
Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, took umbrage at Goodall's comment, saying it was offensive and inappropriate.
The exchange, like the competing maps, points up deep political divisions between the two parties.
When asked after the meeting if the GOP's new map could have been designed to help its 2nd District primary nominee win the general election next year by taking the traditional Democratic Twin Cities stronghold of Lewiston and Auburn out of the picture, Goodall said it might give that impression.
"It could definitely lead you to believe that this change in the districts is to strengthen opportunities for congressional Republican opportunities in the 2nd Congressional District," he said.
Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, said Republicans didn't consider where the two incumbent members of Congress lived when they drew the lines because the redistricting process is supposed to be blind to political considerations. In fact, residency in a district isn't required to represent that district, she said during Monday's meeting.
“The Republican proposal does, indeed, look different than the existing, outdated map," she later said in a written release. "But the intent of the law is not to minimize displacement or protect congressional incumbents. It is to ensure all Maine residents have an equal vote,” she said.
The GOP map shows tighter, more compact districts than the Democrat's boundaries that appear more jagged, she said.
Josh Tardy, an attorney from Newport who served recently as a Republican leader in the Legislature, said fellow members of the commission should keep an open mind about redrawing district lines in an effort to balance the two districts' populations as much as possible and not be tied to conventional thinking about "traditional" districts.
Despite the sharp contrast between the two plans unveiled Monday, independent commission member Mike Friedman, a Bangor attorney, was optimistic about a compromise plan: "This is not an impossible task."