Posted: May 27, 2011
THE TEN-YEAR WARS
By Celia Cohen
Redistricting is the Brigadoon of politics, except redistricting comes around every 10 years, not once a century like the mystical Scottish village in the musical, and it is also a lot more bellicose.
Old grievances, festering for a decade, sprang to life Thursday evening, when the state House of Representatives held a public hearing in Legislative Hall in Dover to present the district maps drawn by the Democratic majority. At the same time, new indignities were laid for the future.
It was like listening to an argument conducted by snail mail but using real snails to deliver it.
A decade ago, when the Republicans controlled the chamber and the maps, the Democrats protested, this is so unfair, and all this time later, the retort is finally arriving from the Republicans as they counter, takes one to know one.
Redistricting in the Delaware General Assembly is politics in the raw. It is supposed to protect the voters, guaranteeing them equal representation through the pure democratic principle of one-person-one-vote, but in reality it is a scrum of self-interest to preserve the majority caucus through a far more cynical expediency, which could be roughly expressed as one-legislator-one-district.
John Sigler, the Republican state chair, spoke at the hearing to expose what the Democrats were doing to the Republicans. It was gentlemanly, he is a lawyer, but he aired it out.
"Federal law bars districts from being drawn in such a disproportionate way that gives advantage to one political party over another, and that appears to be what the maps have done," Sigler said.
Why should Sigler say such a thing? Just because the Democrats' plan forces four Republican representatives into two districts, squeezing Debbie Hudson and Greg Lavelle, the minority leader, into a single Greenville-Brandywine Hundred seat and lumping Nick Manolakos and Joe Miro into a Hockessin-Pike Creek Valley seat?
Because it also redistricts out some of the Republicans' top challengers from the last election like Terry Spence, the former Republican speaker, who would be excluded from the Newark-Christiana district he lost to Mike Barbieri, now the Democratic representative there?
Not to mention because it creates an inviting new district in the Milton-Lewes area fit for Russ McCabe, a Democrat who came up short against Harvey Kenton, the Republican representative in an existing Milford-Milton district?
Them thar were fighting words to the Democrats. Not that they responded publicly. Why bother when they have the votes to do what they want? Still, it dredged up a host of grudges that have lasted for 10 years, ever since the Republicans did the redistricting.
The Democrats had plenty to say privately. What about the Republican map for the 2002 election that threw together two Democratic representatives in Wilmington and wiped out the districts of two other Democratic representatives in Brandywine Hundred and Newark? What about the Democratic representatives shifted into unfriendly districts in Sussex County?
By the time the voting stopped in 2002, the Republicans' handiwork was so brutal there were only 12 Democrats left among the 41 members of the House.
This time around, the Democrats could be said to be cutting the Republicans a little slack. Very little, but it is there. As the districts are shaped today, only two of them have more Republican than Democratic voters. Under the Democratic plan, it would be three.
Not just old grievances reappeared in this political Brigadoon. So did people.
There stood Christine Whitehead like a stone wall. She is a retired lawyer who was instrumental in getting redistricting accomplished a decade ago. The legislature was so deadlocked back then that the maps that were supposed to be finished in 2001 had dragged undone into 2002. Whitehead took it to court and forced a resolution.
Here she was again at the public hearing with more to say.
"Without the expensive computer programs you use, no one can check the plan you have drawn within the time allowed for us to analyze your work. You knew that would be the case, and you knew no public interest group in Delaware can afford one of the programs. That makes the public distrust you even more than usual," Whitehead said.
Whitehead also asked for sanity in the numbering system. When districts disappear from one place, they pop up in another with the old number. It is like Whac-a-Mole, and it is very confusing.
Under the current map, for example, the 4th District is in Wilmington, the 5th District is in Bear, and the 6th District is in Brandywine Hundred. Not to mention the 13th District is in Elsmere, the 14th District is two counties away in Rehoboth Beach, and the 15th District is back in Bear again.
"For the sake of the voters, please create some sequential, organized numbering system," Whitehead said. "To the national groups that follow what states do with redistricting, it looks ridiculous. Just remember, the voters you confuse will be your own."
With each redistricting, the numbering can only get worse, and it probably will. Legislators tend to be irrationally attached to their district numbers. They are like Dumbo, the baby elephant who thinks he cannot fly without the feather.
Among others who came to observe the public hearing, there were Priscilla Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman, and Bob Gilligan, the speaker who is also the Democratic national committeeman.
Rakestraw and Gilligan have been in politics since the 1970s. This was their fourth grueling turn through redistricting, Brigadoon as cruel and unusual punishment.