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El Paso County likely to play key role in reapportionment

February 25, 2011

Congressional redistricting has been a much-vaunted political topic this year, as state lawmakers prepare to redraw each of Colorado’s seven congressional districts. But the 2010 Census also marks the beginning of a parallel process, as state legislators redraw their own districts. The process is called reapportionment. It’s the same as redistricting, but applies to state House and Senate districts.

Many political observers expect redistricting this year will be relatively tame, because Colorado is neither gaining nor losing a congressional seat, but reapportionment can give a single party control over the state Legislature for the next decade.

“It might get pretty hot,” said Bob Loevy, professor of political science at Colorado College.

And El Paso County likely will play a significant role in reapportionment. Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, owes his time in the Capitol to the 2000 reapportionment, when Democrats were able to tilt his district just enough to the left that he beat incumbent Republican Ed Jones in 2006, and won a second term last year.

“If you want a textbook example of the importance of reapportionment, look at El Paso County,” said Loevy.

Democrats will likely control the reapportionment process, Loevy said. Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, will appoint three members to the commission. The House and Senate minority and majority leaders also serve on the commission, and there are two of each party. And politicos agree that state Supreme Court Justice Michael Bender, who will appoint four members of the commission, will likely choose moderate Democrats.

That means Democrats likely will control all but two positions on the 11-member commission, said Loevy.

Morse, as well as Hickenlooper spokesman Eric Brown, said the Democrats on the commission will do their best to draw fair districts.

“The whole commission process was established to try to minimize each party’s ability to gerrymander,” said Morse.

Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, scoffed at the idea.

“I’ll believe that when I see it,” Lambert said. “Here we have another self-perpetuating situation that could really be a holdover from the last gerrymandering session we had. Things haven’t changed that much.”

A look at census numbers indicates that Republicans in El Paso County stand to make the most gains in the reapportionment process because they represent areas with both high population growth and high percentages of active Republicans.

If those areas split, chances are that a Republican lawmaker will fill the seat. Democrats in El Paso County may be even more threatened because the areas that historically housed the most Democrats are shrinking. If those districts grow, there’s a chance they will take in additional Republican voters.

In November, Morse squeaked out a victory for Senate District 11 by 340 votes. That district, which encompasses Manitou Springs and eastern Colorado Springs, has been shrinking. Data from the 2010 Census show that the district’s population is about 19,600 fewer than the new ideal size for senate districts, which is 143,000.

Rep. Pete Lee, the county’s other Democratic lawmaker, also is in a shrinking district.

House District 18 includes Manitou Springs, as well as the west side of Colorado Springs and downtown, and is the only local House district where there are more registered active Democrats than Republicans. The district has a population of 66,291, s. The ideal population for house districts is an estimated 77,000.

In contrast, the House districts that are growing the most are overwhelmingly Republican. The fastest-growing district – District 20, with a population of 106,000 – includes Black Forest, the Air Force Academy and Monument. In that district, Republican House Majority Leader Amy Stephens was uncontested in November’s election. That district has about 29,000 more than the ideal district size, and Republicans outnumber Democrats by almost five-to one.

The second-fastest growing district is District 15, represented by Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, which includes northeast Colorado Springs, Falcon and Cimarron Hills. The population for that district is almost 20,000 more than the ideal population size for a district, and Republicans outnumber Democrats by almost three-to-one.

Contact the writer 476-4825.

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