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THE NATION

Redistricting Fuels Partisan Frenzy

Government: The political future of many lawmakers will be reshaped along with their districts.

July 25, 2001|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — From Sacramento to Albany, the nation's political future is quietly taking shape in the legislative back rooms of America.

Armed with the latest technology and elbowing for even the smallest partisan advantage, state lawmakers and their number-crunching deputies are toiling to redraw the nation's congressional and legislative maps, a technical exercise known as redistricting.

The process is numbingly arcane. The stakes are huge.

The outcome will chart the course of campaigns for a decade or more, starting in 2002. Careers will be made, ambitions thwarted. Control of the House of Representatives, now Republican by a hair, could be affected by a jot here or a squiggle there.

"You can change candidates. You can change messages. You can change the amount of money you spend" on a campaign, said Tom Hofeller, one of the Republican Party's chief redistricting strategists. But for 10 years, "the political boundaries [stay] constant."

Most analysts foresee a slight GOP edge once the process is completed next spring, as Republican gains in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio are offset by losses in California, Georgia and a handful of other states.

The wild card is Texas, where the courts will likely end up drawing the boundaries. Experts say Republicans could pick up anywhere from zero to seven seats in President Bush's home state, depending on what judges decide. That could be the difference between the big gains Republicans forecast nationally and the wash that Democrats predict.

If there is one certainty surrounding a process otherwise rife with uncertainty, it is that most--if not all--of the remap plans will provoke some sort of court fight.

"Anybody can file a lawsuit in America, and redistricting will prove that," said Don McGahn, an attorney for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

California Makes Gain in House

In California, redistricting has been largely set aside as lawmakers focused on the electricity crisis and state budget impasse.

While input has been solicited at a series of public hearings and various proposals are circulating, the real work will be completed behind closed doors during a few frenzied weeks starting in late August, when lawmakers return from their summer break. The job must be completed by Sept. 14, when the legislative session ends.

California is gaining one House seat as a result of population shifts over the last decade, raising its biggest-in-the-nation delegation to 53 members. Currently Democrats outnumber Republicans, 32 to 20.

Several involved in the line-drawing process say lawmakers are discussing a plan to protect most incumbents and give Democrats the state's extra congressional seat. But the storm surrounding Rep. Gary A. Condit of Ceres has complicated things; his once-safe Democratic seat is no longer so.

Democrats, who control redistricting in California, may end up going after several GOP incumbents in hopes of offsetting seats lost elsewhere across the country.

"Obviously there will be some pressure to stretch the number" of targeted Republicans, said a Democratic strategist involved in the remap process.

As complex as redistricting is, certain fundamentals apply.

All 50 states are granted one House seat. The other 385 are divided by population. The Constitution requires a national head count every 10 years to adjust the allotment of seats to reflect population changes. The theoretical notion is that every member of Congress should represent roughly the same number of people. (Each state has two U.S. senators, regardless of population.)

As a result of last year's census, 12 House seats are shifting among 18 states. The big losers are the Northeast and Midwest, where New York and Pennsylvania each lost two seats. Connecticut, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana also lost a seat apiece.

The winners are largely the Sun Belt states that saw large population gains over the last 10 years. Florida, Texas, Georgia and Arizona picked up two seats each. Nevada, North Carolina, Colorado and California gained a seat apiece.

Hostile Shifts in Friendly Districts

Now it is up to state lawmakers to redraw congressional and legislative boundaries to account for the flux, a power that can summon the best and worst of human nature: loyalty, vengeance, generosity and opportunism.

Both major parties hope to exploit the process to their greatest advantage. That means drawing as many friendly districts--ones packed with reliably supportive voters--as reasonably possible.

Certain legal standards govern the exercise, aiming to protect minority interests and guard against the most outlandish acts of partisanship. But even so, lawmakers are fairly free to undermine the other party by redrawing districts to be as hostile to their incumbents as possible. In some cases, they may erase a House member's home turf altogether.

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