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Redistricting: An exercise in politics
By Michael Khoo
Minnesota Public Radio
January 16, 2002
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A special panel of five state judges heard oral arguments on how to redraw the state's political map. The once-in-a-decade redistricting process attempts to align legislative and congressional districts with shifts in the state's population over the last 10 years. Attorneys representing the interests of Republicans, DFLers, and Gov. Jesse Ventura presented their plans to the judicial board. The panel is scheduled to impose new maps if lawmakers can't reach agreement by mid-March.

Redistricting is an intensely political process; the size, shape, and location of districts will have profound impacts on the make-up of the state Legislature for the next decade. And most sides in the hearing acknowledged some partisan politics were at play.

The Democratic plan pits more Republican incumbents against each other. The Republican plan pits more Democratic incumbents against each other.

Attorney Brian Melendez, who represents a group of DFL lawmakers, says he understands population shifts have made the state more GOP-friendly.

"All of the plans recognize that there's a demographic that promotes a Republican-leaning Legislature. That's a just the fact of the case," he said.

But Melendez says the Republican plan goes too far, pairing seven Democrats and only four Republicans. "It takes advantage of the existing discrepancy and exaggerates it unnecessarily and unfairly," he said.

The DFL plan, however, simply flips that equation. It pushes nine Republicans into races against party-mates and only five Democrats. Singled out for particular criticism, however, was Gov. Jesse Ventura's map. Under that proposal 31 Democrats and Republicans would share districts, as well as the Legislature's sole Independence Party member.

But attorney Marianne Short says the large number of face-offs isn't meant to give third parties an edge.

"The fact that the Ventura plan has a high number of incumbent pairs and open districts is not indicative of any political intent. To the contrary, it is the natural consequences of following primary principles laid out by this panel," she said.

The judges also must consider Minnesota's eight congressional districts. The most dramatic change to the current map is suggested by Republicans who want to merge Minneapolis' 5th District and St. Paul's 4th District into one seat.

Attorney Tim Kelly argues leaving the cities separate requires that they absorb neighboring communities into their districts, and he says the state's two largest cities have more in common with each other than with their surrounding suburbs.

"You're faced with a very clear choice: Are you going to merge these two cities, or are you going to continue the notion of having separate - having congressmen in 4 and 5 who have mixed loyalties? One to the suburbs and one to the core city?" he said.

Kelly also says combining the Twin Cities would create group minority votes, increasing the chances of electing a minority to Congress. But Democrats - and Ventura - argue it's preferable to give black, Hispanic, and Asian voters influence in two districts than to corral them into one, and DFL attorney Alan Weinblatt says Minneapolis and St. Paul have distinct identities. He says first-ring suburbs do, in fact, have close ties to their respective Twin City.

"That doesn't mean they're exactly the same as the center city. (We) Don't contend that. What we contend is that their community of interest draws them, - because they have similar federal issues. Not the same, but similar," he said.

Beginning in February, the judicial panel will hold a series of public hearings across the state to take citizen input. If lawmakers and Ventura can't reach agreement - and most observers say they probably won't - the panel will issue maps of its own on March 19.

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