Parties draw battle lines

Monday, March 7, 2011 11:54 PM

DENVER — Four Corners Republicans inserted themselves into the heart of the debate over how to draw Congressional districts Friday.

Ignacio Rep. J. Paul Brown introduced House Bill 1276 on Friday. The legislation would restore a Republican bill passed after 2003’s “midnight gerrymandering.”

The bill tells judges to draw the districts by keeping together similar counties without considering whether local voters prefer Democrats or Republicans.

Democrats repealed that bill at the end of the session last year, when they still held power in the House and Senate. They argued that judges should be able to draw districts that are competitive for both parties.

At stake is the power to draw a new district for U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, and Colorado’s other six members of Congress.

Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, is the Senate sponsor of HB 1276. She was dismayed when Democrats repealed the GOP bill last year.

“I thought that was a very important issue that got swept under the rug last year. It’s not meant to be a partisan thing,” Roberts said.

Democrats don’t see it that way.

“They’re scared about the possibility of splitting up metro Denver to create multiple competitive districts. That’s what this is about,” said House Minority Leader Sal Pace, D-Pueblo.

Veteran lawmakers still remember the 2003 redistricting fight as the scene of the decade’s most feverish partisan acrimony. Majority Republicans pushed through a bill in the last three days of the 2003 session that could have given them a 6-1 majority in the state’s congressional delegation. Democrats won a lawsuit to overturn the map.

Later, Republicans passed a bill to tell judges how to draw future maps. Democrats repealed that bill last year, and Roberts and Brown want it restored.

Brown said the bill is about preserving the influence of the Western Slope. It requires judges to consider “communities of interest” when drawing a map.

“I think that it’s important to have communities of interest together. I am more afraid of them drawing lines from Kansas to Utah and splitting up those communities of interest,” Brown said.

Last year’s bill deleted a provision that defined the Western Slope as a community of interest.

Brown’s bill specifically calls for the Western Slope and Eastern Plains to be preserved in separate Congressional districts. However, it would give a higher priority to keeping cities and counties together, and it gives precedence to the most populated cities and counties.

Pace called the bill a “bait and switch.”

“It’s another slap in the face by Republicans to rural Colorado by trying to keep Denver and Colorado Springs whole rather than Pueblo or Grand Junction or Durango,” Pace said.

Roberts said she “can’t fathom” Pace’s criticism.

The Western Slope lobbying group Club 20 asked her and Brown to run the bill, she said, and the League of Women Voters opposed last year’s Democratic bill.

Pace is a potential candidate to take on Tipton in the 3rd Congressional District, which currently includes the Western Slope and Pueblo. He said he is focusing on the Legislature, not a potential run at Congress.

The Legislature is supposed to redraw congressional districts every 10 years after the Census. In 2001, with Democrats and Republicans sharing control of the Capitol just like this year, they couldn’t agree, and the task went to the courts.

A judge drew the map that’s in use now. It has two competitive districts — the Western Slope and a suburban Denver district — that switched between the parties in the last decade.

Republicans tried to overturn the map when they regained the majority in 2003 by passing a new map in the “midnight gerrymandering.”

At the time, Republicans wanted to link Denver and Boulder into one ultra-Democratic district, allowing Republicans a shot at controlling six of the state’s seven seats.

This year, Republicans and Democrats agreed to create a committee of five members from each party to draw a new map. The group plans to hold public hearings in Pueblo, Alamosa and Grand Junction, and the members want to deliver a bipartisan map to the Legislature by the middle of April.

Brown and Roberts said they’re not trying to short-circuit the bipartisan committee.

“I don’t want it to go to the courts,” Brown said. “But if that should happen, we should have some marching orders.”

Reach Joe Hanel at