Lines have been drawn

Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011 10:22 PM

DENVER — Politics trumped geography Monday when a special state commission drew Telluride into Durango’s state House district in order to make elections more competitive.

The more conservative town of Cortez will split away from Durango to join the Montrose district. The Durango-Telluride House District 59 will be one of the most politically competitive in the state.

The plan still needs final approval from the state Supreme Court, but the court will look only to see if it passes constitutional muster. Monday’s approval by the Colorado Reapportionment Commission was seen as the biggest hurdle against adopting the plan.

Monday’s vote means trouble for District 59’s incumbent, Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio. Not only will Brown have to traverse Red Mountain Pass to meet his new constituents in Telluride and Ouray, but his district just became a lot more favorable for Democrats.

Democrats proposed the Telluride district in the spring, but the chairman of the 11-person panel, Mario Carrera, initially joined Republicans in voting against it.

Last Thursday, Carrera proposed his own map that included the Democrats’ Telluride district. It took Brown by surprise.

“There are a lot of people upset about this in our district. To come in at the last moment I don’t think is fair. They ought to have another public hearing,” said Brown, who was one of five state lawmakers to attend Monday’s hearing.

Carrera said he strove to follow the law’s requirements to draw districts of equal population that respect minority voting strength and, when possible, county lines. But he also tried to maximize the number of competitive districts – something that’s not a legal requirement.

By Carrera’s count, a third of the 100 seats in the Legislature will be winnable by either party under the new plan. Carrera said he took seriously his role as the only unaffiliated voter on the panel.

“Competitiveness should be an ideal for both Democrats and Republicans alike,” he said.

Republicans had proposed a district similar to the current boundaries, which stretches from Cortez to Pagosa Springs along U.S. Highway 160. Their plan created a Republican-leaning district.

Reapportionment Commission members looked at the results from the 2010 state treasurer’s race to predict which districts would be competitive. Under the GOP plan for Southwest Colorado, the Republican would have won the district by 7 percentage points.

But under Carrera’s plan, the Republican would have won by just a tenth of a point, making District 59 one of the closest in the state.

Brown and his Republican allies still have one hope. They hinted they will argue to the Supreme Court that forcing a representative to cross Red Mountain Pass will disenfranchise voters on the other side by putting them out of touch with their House member.

“It’s going to be very hard to represent because of the geographic impediments of three mountain passes in between us,” Brown said.

The Reapportionment Commission meets every 10 years to rebalance populations after the U.S. Census.

The commission was evenly balanced, with five Democrats, five Republicans and Carrera. Legislative leaders, Gov. John Hickenlooper and Chief Justice Michael Bender appointed the commission.

Bob Loevy, a Republican commissioner, said Hickenlooper and Bender easily could have stacked the commission with Democrats.

“I feel very strongly that every Republican in Colorado owes those two men a debt of gratitude for the way they appointed this commission,” Loevy said.

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Southern Ute Indian Tribe will remain in separate districts, as tribal leaders had requested.

Cortez voters will join House District 58, where they likely will be represented by Montrose Republican Don Coram.

Brown said Monday’s vote will not keep him from running for re-election.

“I’ll work my tail off. Unless something drastically changes, I’m in,” he said.

The commission also approved new Senate districts, but there were no changes for Southwest Colorado.

The Supreme Court will review written and oral arguments on the map this fall. A schedule has not yet been set, but the final map has to be in place by the middle of December.