Posted: Aug. 6, 2013
AN OPEN AND SHUT DEBATE
By Celia Cohen
Nothing in politics says "back room" quite like "redistricting."
There is so much kept from the public that the National Security Agency should be taking notes.
Redistricting comes along every 10 years, when the district lines for the Delaware General Assembly are adjusted to re-equalize the population after the census is taken. It happened in 2011. It will happen next in 2021.
Usually in between, redistricting is forgotten about, but this time Patti Blevins did not want to forget about it, and since she is the Democratic president pro tem in the Senate, it has not gone away.
This has not necessarily sat well with some other legislators, including Pete Schwartzkopf, the Democratic speaker in the House of Representatives, so it gets interesting.
From the legislators' perspective, redistricting is the art of self-preservation. It is like cannibals deciding who among them should be eaten. This mostly explains the reason the line-drawing has always happened behind closed doors. It is not pretty when the cutlery comes out.
By the time the new maps are made public, the legislators are disinclined to make many changes. What the voters see is largely what they get.
A redistricting method fashioned of the legislators, by the legislators and for the legislators, however, is not Blevins' style. A 23-year senator from Elsmere in her first term as the pro tem, she is more open-door.
That is not just figuratively but literally. One of Blevins' first acts as pro tem was to reopen an old door to the corner office in Legislative Hall in Dover and shun a new entryway ordered by Tony DeLuca, the previous Democratic pro tem, to shut the office from public viewing.
Blevins came with legislation, Senate Bill 48, which would create a redistricting commission every 10 years to draw the legislative maps in public.
The commission would have 11 members with 10 of them appointed by the legislative leadership and charged with choosing a final member as the chair. None of them could be elected officials or lobbyists, and they would be barred from running for the legislature in the upcoming election.
The legislature itself would still have to enact the new districts. If the map making deadlocked, redistricting would be turned over to the judicial branch, specifically to the chancellor of the Court of Chancery and a judge from the opposite party on the Superior Court.
"I want the process to be more open and transparent to the public and make it one step removed from the political process. It's so easy to characterize redistricting as gerrymandering. If the public can see everything, maybe they can come to a different conclusion," Blevins said.
Ironically, Blevins herself would be the one giving up the most power, if the legislation became law and she were still the pro tem in 2021.
Exhibit #1 is DeLuca, who was running the Senate during the 2011 redistricting. Although he was all innocence, it somehow turned out that the senators whose new districts placed them in peril for re-election seemed to be the same senators who did not vote for him for pro tem.
The Senate passed Blevins' bill on a party line vote in early June by 13-7 with one senator absent.
The minority Republicans objected because they wanted the commission to be guaranteed to be bipartisan. If would be bipartisan if the Senate and the House are run by different parties, but if the Democrats control both parties in 2021, as they do now, the commission would skew their way.
"The commission is an excellent idea. There's no way to take politics out of redistricting completely, we know that, but have it be more about where the voters live. My objection is this still plays politics," said Gary Simpson, the Senate minority leader.
Still, it is not unreasonable to think the minority caucuses could benefit even from a commission weighted against them. At least they could see what was being done to them and have the potential to rally against it, before it is too late.
Senate approval may be as far as Blevins' bill gets. It was not even given a committee hearing in the House before the legislature quit for the year on July 1, although like all bills left undone, it can be considered next year.
Schwartzkopf, the speaker, is no friend of the bill. He handled redistricting for the House in 2011 as the majority leader on assignment from Bob Gilligan, who was the speaker, with a lot less angst than what happened with DeLuca in the Senate.
Schwartzkopf regards a commission as a straw middleman that would slow redistricting down and incur expenses.
"You're not taking politics out of it. You're putting more politics into it. It's an unnecessary step. It means that first you'll yell at the commission, and then you'll yell at the legislators," he said.
With redistricting in the majority caucuses' control, Schwartzkopf thinks there is both authority and accountability -- "if you don't do it right, you pay the consequences the way it happened to DeLuca."
It is true DeLuca was voted out of office, and redistricting certainly seemed to be responsible. That, and the way he was double-dipping as an administrator in the state Labor Department, not to mention his inclination to treat the other senators like the house-elves in Harry Potter.
Schwartzkopf plans to have the House get around to Blevins's bill -- sort of.
"I'll give it a committee hearing and vote it down," Schwartzkopf said.
That would be that, except there are still eight legislating years left until the next redistricting, time enough for Blevins to keep trying.