Posted: May 24, 2011; updated: May 25, 2011
Note: This column originally suggested that previous redistrictings had not combined Senate seats. Thanks to Dave Wilkins, chief of staff for the Senate Republicans, for pointing out that two districts in Brandywine Hundred were combined for the 1982 election to open up a new downstate district, enabling a Democratic representative to win a Senate seat. Someone named Ruth Ann Minner.
By Celia Cohen
Redistricting has been around forever, ever since Adam and Eve were redistricted out of the Garden of Eden after getting conned by the Serpent with the apple. Oldest trick in the Book.
The Serpent found its calling as the Original Legislator. By early America, it famously begat the gerrymander, and the country has been living with its diabolical offspring ever after.
Redistricting has such a long and sly past, it should not be a surprise that the Serpent's tooth is as sharp as ever in the Delaware General Assembly. Specifically the Senate.
When the maps were presented by the Senate's Democratic majority last week, they threw Dave Sokola, a Democratic senator from Pike Creek Valley, and Liane Sorenson, a Republican senator from Hockessin, into the same district.
"I would be more than happy to have this be reconsidered," Sokola said.
Redistricting has the power in politics of a force of nature, rearranging districts and political careers helter-skelter. It got its potency in the 1960s, when the Supreme Court declared in its landmark one-person-one-vote decision that districts had to be based on population, not geography.
From then on, districts have been redrawn every decade, once the national census tracks the way people have moved around. In the early years, the legislature accommodated growth by adding to itself, increasing from 17 senators and 35 representatives in 1962 up to 21 senators and 41 representatives in 1972, the size it has stayed since.
Once the numbers stabilized, something had to give as the population boom trickled southward.
The House first merged districts for the 1992 election, closing upstate districts to open new ones in the lower regions. The Senate combined a couple of Brandywine Hundred districts for the 1982 election but then avoided the practice. It gave some thought to collapsing another pair of Brandywine Hundred districts for the 2002 election but figured out a way around it.
"Ten years ago we made a good faith effort to give everyone a district, and we did," Sokola said.
Sokola and Sorenson were hardly blindsided. Both are experienced legislators, Sokola elected to the Senate in 1990 and Sorenson, the minority whip, elected in 1994 after two years in the House.
"It was going to be tight in the county. We tried it, we can draw 21 districts with keeping everyone in New Castle County, but they're funny looking," Sorenson said.
The maps are not finalized, although Sokola is preparing as if they were.
"I've had the honor to serve for 22 years, and I'll fight like heck to keep serving, but I really don't want to run against Liane. She's a decent person. I'll run for the district, not against Liane," Sokola said.
Sorenson was more noncommittal about running, a realist holding out for a reprieve anyhow.
"It's way too early. It's not over 'til it's over, although usually what comes out is what stays. We're friends. It's not what you'd want," Sorenson said.
Next to Sokola and Sorenson, the senator most threatened by redistricting looks to be Michael Katz, a first-term Democrat from Centerville.
Katz has his own district, but it manages to include all four of the Republican representatives tossed two-by-two into collapsing districts. The House maps, proposed by the Democratic majority, combine Greg Lavelle, the minority leader, with Deborah Hudson in a Greenville-Brandywine Hundred district and Nick Manolakos and Joe Miro in a Hockessin-Pike Creek Valley district.
Not only is Katz a new legislator, but his district, a great sweeping arc along the northern part of the state, is one of only two Senate districts with more Republican than Democratic voters. If that is not an invitation for one of the endangered Republicans to peel off and try to take him out, nothing is.
Funny that Katz and Sokola would wind up with unfriendly districts. Katz came up short in his challenge to replace Tony DeLuca, the Senate's Democratic president pro tem with the me-first-among-equals attitude, and Sokola was so committed to helping Katz do it that he got himself to Dover for the showdown just five days removed from hip surgery.
"I'm not going to go there," said Katz, although it got him thinking.
"My job is to do the best I can to serve the community. I'm not an advocate of business-as-usual and will continue to push for new ideas and change. I'm not there to keep a seat warm. In my few years there, I haven't had people rushing out to help me in what I'm trying to do."
Redistricting has a way of giving a legislator a bite of the apple.