AUGUSTA — Lead negotiators on the Legislature's reapportionment commission on Wednesday vowed to work on a consensus plan to redraw the boundaries for Maine's congressional districts, just one day after a partisan blowup appeared to foreshadow court intervention in the mapping process.
Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, and Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, who both serve on the 15-member commission, emerged from a meeting at the State House vowing to work on a map that they hope Democrats and Republicans can support when the Legislature convenes for a special session in September.
"We agreed to make sure we set aside the differences of the last few days and move forward in a good faith effort to work toward a consensus plan," Goodall said.
Such a compromise will likely be viewed favorably by several Republican members of the tri-county delegation, some of whom expressed ambivalence over the GOP's initial plan to push Androscoggin, Oxford and a portion of Franklin County out of the 2nd Congressional District for the first time in 50 years.
"I have some concerns," said Sen. Lois Snowe-Mello, R-Poland, who represents three towns in Androscoggin County. "I never dreamed that we'd ever put Androscoggin County in the first district."
Snowe-Mello declined to elaborate on her misgivings, saying she first wanted to consult with Republican leadership. However, she acknowledged that she was conflicted about the proposal.
"I'm sure they (leadership) have a good reason for it," she said.
Rep. Jarrod Crockett, R-Bethel, is outright opposed to the GOP plan to jettison Oxford County to the more urban — and historically Democratic — 1st District. Crockett said the proposal threatened to diminish Oxford's political clout and make future congressional representatives less responsive to the county, especially when pitted against issues in more urban areas such as Portland.
"Oxford County gains nothing in this plan," Crockett said. "We'll basically be a playground for the rest of the district and nobody will actually have to pay attention to us. At least now we are a factor."
Democrats say the GOP's proposal this year is classic gerrymandering. The initial proposal put U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, into the same district as U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine. Democrats have also assailed the plan to move Androscoggin out of the 2nd District as "Raye-districting," because it presumably increases the chances that Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, can defeat Michaud in 2012.
Raye, who has expressed interest in a congressional run, lost to Michaud in 2002 by about 9,000 votes. More than half of that margin was in Androscoggin County.
But Crockett wasn't convinced that fiddling with the 2nd District is necessary for Republicans to win the district. He noted that Republicans Snowe and William Cohen held the seat for 22 years between 1973 and 1995.
"The fact is this district is a Republican district," he said. "This has been a Republican district for 22 years. The reality is that incumbents don’t lose in the 2nd CD (Second District)."
Crockett appears to be in the minority about the redistricting plan among GOP lawmakers in Oxford County. Two other lawmakers, Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway, and Sen. David Hastings, R-Fryeburg, said they didn't see a problem with joining the 1st District.
Hastings said he didn't share Crockett's concern of mixing the constituent needs of urban and rural towns.
"Maine is full of rural and urban areas," Hastings said, adding that a congressman would have no choice but to be responsive to both constituencies, a belief shared by Winsor.
Similarly, Rep. Bruce Bickford, R-Auburn, said he thought pushing Lewiston and Auburn into the 1st District was a good idea.
"Lewiston-Auburn is a strong, growing community," Bickford said. "We think it should be in a class with Portland. ... Portland is pretty well saturated (in population). L-A has room to grow and I think one day we'll rival Portland (economically)."
Several Republicans said the GOP proposal would also work toward eliminating "the two Maines," a theory commonly espoused by Republicans that the current congressional district map pits urban, southern Maine against its northern, rural neighbors.
The GOP made the same argument in 2003 when it presented a redistricting plan similar to the one now under consideration. That plan, like the proposal released last week, changes the current district division from a north-south line to one that splits the state east-west.
The east-west split hasn't been in place since the 1950s when the state had three congressional districts. In 2003 the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ultimately decided on a plan that preserved the north-south split. Absent a few minor changes, the split has existed since 1961.
Snowe-Mello said she didn't wholly agree with the "two Maines" concept.
"I think it's a bit of a misconception," she said.
Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, likes the idea of the east-west division. However, Saviello said he was concerned that the GOP plan to split Franklin County between the 1st and 2nd District would render the county irrelevant to congressional representatives who may see diminished political gains for diverting resources to a county with a split constituency.
Saviello, like Snowe-Mello, said he was conflicted about the GOP proposal. While he said his concerns weren't enough to prompt opposition to the plan, he said it would be "less painful" for Franklin County if lawmakers on the commission find a compromise.
Even supporters of the GOP proposal said they would be willing to support a compromise if Republican leadership deemed it in the party's best interests.
"I'm sure that when the end comes we'll support the plan leadership thinks is best," Bickford said.
The current GOP plan would move 360,000 residents and 139 municipalities into a new congressional district. Plowman said Wednesday that pursuing that proposal will be difficult, and not just because the GOP is meeting fierce resistance from Democrats and the public for such a significant change.
Plowman said that the more communities affected by the move meant that more GOP lawmakers such as Crockett, Snowe-Mello and Saviello needed to be convinced that the plan was good for their districts — or their re-election chances.
Plowman said she and Goodall will reconvene Friday to see if the two sides can come to an agreement around the Kennebec plan.
"We're prepared to work through the weekend if necessary," she said.
The commission will vote on the proposals Monday.