A proposal to redraw Southwest Colorados state House districts raises interesting questions about the redistricting process. In particular, what constitutes a community of interest and what should residents of a legislative district have in common?
Every 10 years, following the constitutionally mandated U.S. Census, the legislative districts are redrawn to reflect population changes and keep districts population in approximate balance.
As part of this process, Colorado established an 11-member commission to redraw district lines. Made up of five Republicans and five Democrats with an unaffiliated chairman, the commission is an attempt to minimize the partisanship that inevitably accompanies redistricting as each party tries to redraw districts for political advantage.
Monday, the commission rejected a Democratic proposal to redraw Southwest Colorado state House districts that would have put Durango and Telluride in one district with Cortez in another.
Cortez is now in the 59th House District - just barely. With it are Silverton, Durango, Pagosa Springs and everything south to the New Mexico line. Telluride is now in the 58th District, along with much of western Montezuma County and including Dove Creek, Montrose, Ouray and north to take in part of the Grand Mesa.
The argument the Democrats put forward was that lumping Telluride and Durango together would create a San Juan Mountain district. The thinking is, as the plans author, Rep. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, put it, Those resort communities talk the same talk and have the same point of view.
It is an interesting assertion. Relative to Cortez, Durango is more of a resort town, with higher real estate prices, and more restaurants and art galleries. But that hardly puts it in the same league as Telluride, a place most residents of Durango or Cortez can barely afford to visit.
Then too, there is the matter of distance. Telluride and Durango may be close together on a map, but traveling between them is a two-hour drive in good weather. As the 59th Districts Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, correctly noted, Telluride is a lot closer to its current representative, Don Coram, R-Montrose.
But then Corams 58th District also includes Towaoc and Paonia, so maybe distance or convenience are not determining factors. Should they be?
What, if any, is the common thread that should run through a legislative district? What defines a community of interest? Geography? Commerce? Economic similarity?
The Democrats contention that Telluride and Durango are economically similar is debatable. Assuming they are, though, does that trump the fact that there are greater economic ties between Durango and Montezuma County?
And what role should culture or voter registration play? Should the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain reservations be kept in one district or separated? Should we strive for competitive districts or safe ones more likely to produce dependable representation?
The commissions Monday decision was preliminary. A final choice will be made only after statewide hearings to be held in August. There may not be a consistent, coherent answer to redistricting, but it deserves to be decided on more than partisan considerations.