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Lawmakers Can't Agree On Districts

Decision On Congressional Boundaries Heads To The State Supreme Court

By Daniela Altimari

December 22, 2011

The task of redrawing the state's congressional boundaries will fall to the Connecticut Supreme Court after a legislative commission riven by partisan bickering and deep ideological conflict was unable to finish the job.

"We engaged in a negotiation process," said House Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey, a Hamden Democrat who serves on the Redistricting Commission. "In the end, the differences between the parties were just too great. There was a different philosophical approach [about] to how to do these maps that was a chasm that we could not cross."

The heavily Democratic city of New Britain is at the heart of the disagreement. Republicans want to move the working class community with a large minority population into the 1st Congressional District; Democrats want it to remain in the 5th. The stakes are high for both sides because the 5th will be an open seat in 2012 and voters in New Britain could play a key role in determining which party wins the seat.

Political considerations have loomed large over the redistricting process, which has undergone many twists in recent months. The commission's admission of failure represents the latest missed deadline in the ongoing drama, which continued to play out in dueling press conferences Wednesday afternoon. The court has until mid-February to approve a new map.

The state is required to redraw congressional boundaries once a decade to ensure they conform with population shifts documented by the U.S. Census. In Connecticut, each of the five districts should have about the same number of residents: 714,820.

The 2010 census showed the need for only minor tinkering: The eastern Connecticut communities of the 2nd District were the only parts of the state that saw significant population growth, so the lines needed to be adjusted to reflect that. But unlike 2000, the state is not losing one of its five seats in Congress.

Republicans view the redistricting process as a chance to make Connecticut's congressional map more compact. Specifically, they want to get rid of the claw-shaped jagged edges that have divided the 1st and 5th Districts since the last redistricting.

The current map is a blatant example of gerrymandering, Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said during a press briefing just minutes after the missed deadline. "We believe we have an obligation to clear that up," he said.

Another Republican goal was to create at least one district where black and Latino voters were the majority. Initially, the GOP proposed placing Bridgeport in the 3rd District, which would have made the 4th decidedly more Republican, but after the NAACP raised an objection, Republicans scrapped that plan.

House Republican Leader Lawrence Cafero of Norwalk said his party made "significant compromises" in an effort to reach consensus.

"Ultimately, we were unable to reach an agreement because we firmly believe that while our side truly did compromise on our earlier proposals, the Democrats did not alter their positions in any significant manner," Cafero said. "Now the court will decide."

While Republicans were proposing a sweeping rejiggering of the congressional map, Democrats argued that only small adjustments were needed.

"We saw our job as one of ... protecting the interests and communities in the existing congressional districts and resolving the very minimal shifts in population," said Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn.

The GOP's plan to take New Britain out of the 5th District -- and add all of Torrington and several small hill towns currently in the 1st -- is chief among the Democrats' objections. "There's no reason to rip 80,000 people and an important community of interest to the 5th out of that district," Williams said.

The 5th has traditionally been a swing district, but President Barack Obama won there by 14 percentage points in 2008. The district has been represented by Chris Murphy since 2006, but he is running for the U.S. Senate in 2012. At least five Republicans and three Democrats are seeking to replace him.

State Rep. Robert Sanchez, a New Britain Democrat, said there was no outcry from residents of his city to be added to the 1st District.

"We want to stay in the 5th District," he said during a press briefing about an hour after the commission announced it was unable to reach agreement. "Leave the maps the way they are. ... The biggest issue that we have ... is the amount of influence that were going to lose ... if New Britain is moved out" of the 5th.

Now the matter moves to the courts and few would predict how it would play out. "At [this] point, frankly, it is totally in the hands of the Supreme Court," Cafero said.

The court could appoint a special master to oversee the matter, Cafero said. Or it could appoint a special master to advise the justices. It could even reconstitute the redistricting commission. The justices "have not indicated what process they will follow," he said.

Whatever happens, the matter will be resolved by Feb. 15, as stipulated by the state Constitution.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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