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GOP plan includes three east-west congressional districts

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota House Republicans propose three mostly rural congressional districts that stretch east to west across the state.

The northern and southern districts each would contain 23 counties, with one across central Minnesota, except for the Twin Cities area, including 22 counties.

The northern two districts are dramatic changes from current U.S. House lines, and Democrats said Republicans lump together too many dissimilar Minnesotans in the mega districts.

"It's just a totally different economy," Democratic U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson said. "That's why those districts have been kept separate. ... (The Republicans have) overreached. They could've put a map together that would make some sense."

The northernmost region, labeled the 8th Congressional District, would stretch from Moorhead to Cloquet, with the line dipping south to cut Mille Lacs Lake in half. It would include Becker County, where Peterson lives.

The next district south, which would be the new 7th Congressional District, begins in Pine County in the northeast, extending southwest to the Minnesota River in the west.

The GOP redistricting proposal, which faces a tough future, pits no U.S. House member against another one.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton often has said he will not support any election-related bill, including redistricting maps, that fails to receive broad bipartisan legislative support. There was no indication Monday that Democrats would support the GOP plan.

It has been more than a century since Minnesota legislators and a governor agreed on a redistricting plan, so the courts have drawn new legislative and congressional district maps for years.

Democrats' biggest complaint is that Minnesotans had little more than a day to examine the map before today's committee meeting.

"People have not had enough time to give us any feedback," said Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown.

The redistricting plan will be discussed today in a House committee hearing. The House already passed, with Democrats opposed, a state legislative redistricting plan.

Senate Republicans are expected to release their congressional plan, as well as one redrawing state legislative boundaries, this week.

The current 8th district covers northeastern, north-central and east-central Minnesota, while the current 7th takes in most of western Minnesota from Canada nearly to Iowa.

Peterson, who now represents the 7th, called the Republicans' proposal a "certainly political" move, the epitome of gerrymandering.

"It helps them try to pick up a seat or two or hang on to a seat or two," said Peterson, an 11-term incumbent and the leading Democratic House Agriculture Committee member. "It's pretty obvious they made a decision they couldn't beat me, so they gave me a very Democratic district."

Although the GOP plan likely would give Peterson a lock on his congressional seat with the addition of heavily Democratic northeastern Minnesota, Peterson said the redistricting would not make sense given the historical rationale for the current district lines.

Northwestern and northeastern Minnesota have been in separate congressional districts since 1891, Peterson said, and those boundaries have been the guideline for the formation of many regional boards, such as watershed districts.

"It would upset all of that," Peterson said.

Specifically, the redistricting would likely add a new level of red tape in the effort to secure federal funding for water retention projects in the Red River Valley. The Republicans plan would split the northern and southern valleys into two districts.

Economically, the Republicans plan also doesn't make sense to Peterson.

Western Minnesota encompasses much of the agricultural base of the state, while northeastern Minnesota is home to more mining and forestry interests, Peterson said.

Peterson predicted the Republicans' plan would likely be vetoed by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

Under a Democratic proposal, Peterson said the 7th District would be realigned to include the rest of Stearns County and a couple counties in the southeast corner of Minnesota.

Peterson would represent the entire western portion of the state under the DFL plan.

"It would make more sense," Peterson said. "I work already with a lot of those people, and then production agriculture will be all in that one district."

Peterson said redistricting efforts should focus more on the Twin Cities area, which saw more fluctuations in population over the past decade.

"There's no reason to come up into western and northern Minnesota and make all these changes, when our population hasn't changed that much," Peterson said.

The 7th Congressional District's 22 counties would take in an area from north of the Twin Cities, extending west to the state line, taking in communities ranging from Pine City, St. Cloud, Alexandria, Fergus Falls and Willmar.

Rookie Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack lives in the northeast corner of that proposed district.

The proposed 7th would give Cravaack a heavy Republican district, although with many voters know little about him.

Cravaack would represent his home area of Pine County, but also would represent western Minnesota areas that Peterson long has served. Agriculture dominates the west, but it is much less important in the eastern part of the proposed district.

Redistricting comes every 10 years, after the federal census is released, so that each district has the same population.

Rural areas have lost population for years, while areas such as those immediately north of the Twin Cities are growing. That means rural districts grow in size while growing suburban districts shrink as each of the state's eight districts has about 662,990 people.

None of Minnesota's U.S. House members would compete against each other in the House plan. Rural districts would experience the most change, while the Twin Cities districts would stay much the same.

Kristen Daum of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead contributed to this story. Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.