Minnesotans implore judges to save communities in redistricting process
ST. PAUL -- Minnesotans with similarities should be put in the same congressional and legislative districts, five judges heard time after time Wednesday night as they begin drawing new political maps.
The panel heard a dizzying array of opinions about how new congressional and legislative district lines should be redrawn, but preserving "communities of interest" stood out as a common refrain.
"We see a 'community of interest' as a grouping of people in a geographic area that share common interests: a city, a school district, a sovereign entity or even a cultural community like the Somalis in Cedar Riverside or a transportation corridor like the pockets of farm communities along the Minnesota River," said Candi Walz, chairwoman of Draw the Line Minnesota's citizens redistricting commission. "Redistricting should aim to preserve, rather than divide, representation for these people who share common interests."
Also at the two-hour hearing, others argued that districts should be made more competitive, saying one political party should not expect to control any district.
It was the second of eight public hearings on redistricting, to be followed later this month by political organizations telling the judges how they would like to see boundary lines drawn. The judges plan to release their decision on Feb. 21, unless the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton surprise observers and agree on their own maps.
Republicans passed redistricting plans before the Legislature adjourned in late May. Dayton vetoed the plans, saying he cannot sign any major election-related law without broad bipartisan support, and Democrats say they were not included in drawing up the GOP plans.
Presiding Judge Wilhelmina M. Wright of the Appeals Court opened the hearing saying that the judges cannot wait to start the work once they know politicians have failed. "We must be prepared to act."
On Wednesday, 24 people gave the judges their spin on how to draw the lines, a federal requirement every 10 years to keep all districts' population the same. New maps determine political power for the next decade, so parties are following the process closely.
Walz said her group held hearings in 18 locations across the state.
"In Willmar, we heard from people living in the smaller rural communities that they feel their interests are often overshadowed by the larger regional centers," Walz said. "In Duluth, we heard from tribal leaders concerned that northern Minnesota's Indian country has been divided between two congressional districts -- a division they feel diminishes their ability to be heard in Congress or in Minnesota."
Rhonda Schwartz of Woodbury offered the judicial panel a congressional district maps that gives the Twin Cities area five U.S. House members and rural parts of the state three. The current 6th Congressional District, which stretches from Wisconsin on the east to St. Cloud in central Minnesota, includes quite different residents, she said, and illustrates how a district should not be drawn.
While preserving communities of interest was the main topic brought up, Judith Screaton of Washington County talked about the second most popular idea: making districts more competitive between the two major parties.
If one party can count on winning a district, Screaton said, elected officials are not responsive to voters. If districts were competitive, she said, "then there would be incentives for our elected officials to pay attention to the people."
"There are far too many 'safe' districts," added Joe Ward of Woodbury, who joined the chorus of those wanting more political competition.
"Ignore incumbents," was advice from Paul Rosenblatt of Roseville. "Democracy benefits from closely divided districts."
Some at the hearing urged that minorities be majorities in some districts so they could elect more to office. Just six of the 201 state legislators are minorities, the judges heard.
Bruce Corrie of One Minnesota was one promoting drawing lines to help minorities: "We have not got adequate representation, especially in rural areas."
Walz suggested that the judges allow the public to comment on proposed redistricting maps before they are made final, but the judges gave no indication that would happen.
Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea appointed Wright, Ivy S. Bernhardson of Hennepin County, James B. Florey of St. Louis County, Edward I. Lynch of Dakota County and John R. Rodenberg of Brown County to decide redistricting-related issues.
Written comments about redistricting still may be submitted to StateRedistrictingPanel@courts.state.mn.us or to Bridget Gernander, 305 Minnesota Judicial Center, 25 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., St. Paul, Minn. 55155, by Oct. 21.
Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.