Colo. court battle over congressional maps begins

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Colorado’s top political parties go to court this week to pitch their changes for the state’s congressional landscape — a process that could affect 2012 races in three districts now held by Republicans.

Starting Tuesday, Denver’s District Court will hear arguments on the redistricting process required every 10 years to reflect updated Census statistics. The court will have about a half dozen maps to consider in a trial expected to last two weeks.

GOP leaders say Democrats are trying to drastically change districts held by Rep. Mike Coffman in Denver’s southern suburbs, Rep. Cory Gardner in eastern Colorado and Rep. Scott Tipton in south and western Colorado. Coffman and Gardner’s districts lean heavily Republican, while Tipton’s has become competitive in recent years.

Republicans argue that, minor changes for demographics aside, there’s little reason to re-draw the state’s seven districts.

“Here’s the way it looks to me. The Republican side is basically saying, ‘If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it,” said former Republican U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez.

Beauprez argues that Democrats want to “put the state’s population in a blender and stir it up” to gain more seats, taking aim at Coffman in particular. Coffman’s 6th District — controlled by the GOP for nearly three decades — needs to shed some 80,000 residents because it’s growing so quickly compared to other areas.

The Democrats want to put more seats up for grabs.

A Democratic map would split Coffman’s district evenly among both parties and unaffiliated voters. It also would put Aurora, Colorado’s third largest city, entirely in the district instead of its current split between the 6th and the 7th district, now held by Democrat Ed Perlmutter. And it would shift the Republican-leaning southeast portion to a more Democratic area northeast of Denver.

“The fact that this district has a chance to become more competitive is an exciting notion,” said Democratic state Rep. Joe Miklosi, who is challenging Coffman.

Coffman’s office said the congressman would not comment.

Tipton’s 3rd Congressional District — one of the most competitive in the state — must grow to include enough people to comprise a congressional seat. His challenger is state House Democratic Leader Sal Pace, who says he believes he can win regardless of new district boundaries in 2012.

State Senate President Brandon Shaffer is running against Gardner in the 4th District, a predominantly rural district nearly the size of South Carolina covering the state’s Eastern Plains.

Latino groups argue both parties are breaking up Hispanic communities, diluting the voting power of Latinos, the fastest growing population in the state.

“For a long time, the Latino communities of interest have been separated into a number of different districts and what we’re trying to do, to the extent possible, is unite those communities,” said Regina Rodriguez, an attorney representing the Colorado Latino Forum and the Colorado Hispanic Bar Association, which joined the lawsuit.

Latinos now account for one-fifth of Colorado’s population, compared to 17 percent in 2000. Rodriguez said her clients’ maps try to keep together Hispanic communities in Morgan and Weld counties in northeast Colorado, the Denver metro area, and the San Luis Valley and Pueblo in southern Colorado.

Dense as the topic may be, the last 10 years show the impact congressional redistricting can have. Current districts adopted after a lengthy court dispute 10 years ago produced competitive congressional delegations. In the early 2000s, Republicans held five of seven seats. Democrats held five seats in 2008. Republicans now hold four seats.

Mark Grueskin, an attorney for the Democrats, conceded that not all districts can be made competitive because they heavily lean toward one party or another, such as those held by Democratic Reps. Diana DeGette in Denver and Jared Polis in Boulder, and Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn in Colorado Springs.

Grueskin maintains that doesn’t mean the entire state should be that way and that proposed maps should strive for competitiveness “so that not every election is a forgone conclusion.” He described a competitive district as one where “the mere fact of party registration doesn’t prevent you from going to Congress.”

Richard Westfall, an attorney representing Republicans, said it’s not up to the court to decide the question of competitive districts.

The criteria courts use include keeping communities of interest together, preserving county and municipal boundaries and avoiding racial discrimination. The ideal size for Colorado district is about 718,000 people.

Westfall said other sticking points for Republicans about the Democrats’ maps are that they move rural Larimer County into Polis’ district, which includes the mountains, and put the suburbs of Douglas County in the Eastern Plains.

“It’s highly subjective,” he said.

Nevada, New Mexico and Minnesota are going to court because their legislatures were unable to agree on districts, said Tim Storey, a redistricting analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. A handful of other states adopted plans, including Texas, Wisconsin and Ohio, but they’re facing court challenges, Storey said.

It’s all part of an important process that is sometimes lost on the public because, as political science professor Bob Loevy put it, it’s so much “inside baseball,” with few understanding the subtle jockeying for districting lines.

“The average voter doesn’t realize the awesome power of redistricting,” said Loevy, who teaches at Colorado College.

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