Already working

The 2003 appointment of Maine’s legislature and congressional districts is well under way. The 15-member Legislative Apportionment Commission includes 10 lawmakers (five from each party) two political party chairs (or their representative) and three public members, one from each party and the third who acts as (neutral) chairman. The commission, chaired by former Dean of the University of Maine School of Law Donald Zillman, undertook the role of redrawing the legislative, congressional, and county commission districts to reflect population changes documented by the 2000 federal census.

After several months of tedious and exhausting work, the panel failed to reach agreement before the April 3 deadline. The commission was able to unanimously agree on a house plan to remap 151 new districts. Agreement was also reached on revising the County Commission districts. However, by a straight-party-line vote the commission failed to reach a plan to realign the 35 Senate districts.

The Commission members also did not reach bi-partisan agreement on a congressional redistricting plan. Republican members used the same ploy that Democrats used in 1983 of carving the two congressional districts in a way to put the two incumbents together.

In 1983, Democrats gleefully used the threat of including then- Congressman John McKernan with his then partner, Congresswoman Olympia Snowe, in the same district. During this recent reappointment debate, Republican commission staffer former Congressman David Emery proposed a convoluted scheme to lump Congressman Tom Allen, hometown of Portland, with Rep. Mike Michaud’s residence of Medway.

Last week, Chairman Zillman concurred with the Democratic members congressional district proposal which would move from Sen. George Mitchell’s birthplace of Waterville from the First Congressional District to the Second Congressional District.

Up for debate

Pursuant to the provisions of a constitutional amendment adopted in 1975, the Commission’s divided report will next be debated by the Legislature. A majority vote of two two-thirds of both the House and Senate are required for approval. At this point, without further negotiations of redrawing the boundaries, the Maine Supreme Court will once again be called upon to redistrict the state’s political boundaries, just as it did following both the 1960, 1970 and 1990 censuses.

In 1977, a commission assigned the task of redrawing House districts so that each had only one representative surprisingly reached a unanimous report.

In 1983, although the reappointment panel got off to a rocky partisan start, it managed to reach agreement skillfully coaxed by its Chairman former Commissioner of Transportation and business consultant, Roger Mallar.

Unfortunately a decade later, in 1993, the Democrats appeared to have “over reached with the colored markers” in their design to draw the political boundaries. A read of the Supreme Court decision establishing the reappointment plan evidenced a more cogent and defendable Republican redistricting plan. Democrats seemed to be more concerned with winning the political rather than legal battle that was needed in its briefs and plan presented to the law court.

This time around, the Democrats were better prepared. A well researched Democratic staff did not want history to repeat itself of the political misjudgments of the 1993 process. From day one, the Democrats’ strategy and plan was to assume the Maine Supreme Judicial Court would end up as the final decision maker. It was reasoned that a well researched and documented legally defensible plan would rule over the special electoral needs and political careers of legislatiors, some whining about the proposed redrawn districts.

Stood in their shoes

In defense of legislators, I have personally stood in their shoes in 1983 when the first draft of the Republican plan carved my house out of my district. I concede I did protest loudly and the district was redrawn. I was told later by my Republican friends it was done as a future bargaining chip because I also served as Chair of the Maine Democratic Party.

The first reappointment since the enactment of the term limits law also has brought more flexibility in the redistricting process. Fewer political lines had to be drawn to save veteran legislators. More thought was given to the longterm affects of the political divisions than in the past by the Democrats.

Both parties are armed with sophisticated computer software versions known as “Mapitude” to help plot the proposed districts. Both party commission staff and members had their own well organized offices. Unlike in the past members weren’t acting as adolescents in spending a lot of their time with magic markers coloring in proposed districts.

Trying it again

Lawmakers will make a last-ditch effort to redraw political boundaries before the Commission report is sent to court. Senate members continue to tinker with their competing plans. Both parties should understand the risk of letting the third branch of government decide their fate. Democrats painfully learned that in 1993. It would be wise for the same spirit of compromise and bi-partisanship that governed the budget debate to surface again soon.

Republicans still foster fond memories of their political finesse of their 1993 plan. They have the same strategist, David Emery, this time as last, who is very capable.

In a 1993 column, respected political columnist Jim Brunelle penned “Ever since Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts drew a salamander-shaped congressional district to favor his political party a couple centuries ago, redistricting has been a lightening rod for political opportunism. As this year’s struggle to realign Maine legislature and congressional districts in accordance with 1990 census figures shows, the spirit of Gerry is alive and vigorous.”

Unlike 1993, I do hold some hope that lawmakers will arrive at the conclusion that redistricting is properly the responsibility of the legislature.

A friendly word to John Elder: Unlike 1993, the spirit of Elbridge Gerry is not alive, his ghost has not appeared yet, and hopefully won’t.

Barry Hobbins is a Saco attorney and political analyst who was a state representative, state senator and chair of the Maine Democratic Party. He can be reached by writing to him at Hobbins & Gardner, LLC, 110 Main St., Suite 1508, Saco, Maine 04072-2895 or by e-mail at [email protected]

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