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Redistricting: Change In Wisconsin Politics

It took Republican legislative leaders only 12 days to go from unveiling their redistricting plans to passing them into law. The consequences of the redistricting legislation, however, may affect politics in Wisconsin for the next decade.

After presenting redistricting maps on July 8, the Senate passed the redistricting legislation on July 19, and the assembly on July 20 along predictable partisan lines. An all-day public hearing was held on July 13. During the morning session, about 100 people attended. When asked why the redistricting legislation was being rushed to a vote, a representative of Sen. Scott Fitzgerald’s (R-Juneau) office said the rush was necessary to proactively counter a lawsuit against the Government Accountability Board (GAB), pending in US District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. The lawsuit requested that a three-judge panel be appointed to redraw the district lines.

Democrats argue that the rush to pass the redistricting legislation was politically motivated because Democrats could possibly regain control of the State Senate in the upcoming recall elections in August.

The new legislation redraws Senate, Assembly and Congressional districts, upending the bottom-up process for redistricting which was performed in the past. Every ten years, after new census data is released, the districts need to be equalized based upon the most current population data.

Under the new legislation, the chief responsibility for redistricting falls upon the state legislature rather than local officials. The prior law required local officials and state legislatures to perform these duties, utilizing a bottom-up method of local ward lines serving as a basis for the districts, and taxpayers incurred no special charges for this work.

Michael Best & Friedrich and Troupis Law Office were hired by the state at taxpayer expense to redraw the various districts. So far the law firms have charged the state about $350,000. The redistricting process was conducted secretly.

On July 21, the 15 residents who filed the lawsuit against the GAB in federal court amended their original complaint to argue that the new maps violate the US Constitution and the Voting Rights Act by carving up cities and splitting minority communities. The lawsuit argues that Democrats in Wisconsin now have little chance to attain and retain a majority in the State Senate and Assembly or in the congressional delegation.

The lawsuit also contends that in Milwaukee the redistricting diluted African-American voting power by compressing the African-American vote into six Assembly districts instead of seven. Additionally, it argues that four Native American communities, which previously voted in one Assembly district, now vote in two districts, thus weakening the strength of their vote. The suit seeks an injunction to prevent the use of the new maps in upcoming elections and seeks a panel of three judges to draw the district lines if the legislature cannot come up with valid maps.

Richard Esenberg, a visiting professor of law at Marquette University Law School, was asked to testify at the public hearing on July 13 by James Troupis, the attorney who worked with Republicans on redrawing the maps. Esenberg said he believed the redistricting maps would withstand any legal challenges. He also said the new maps respected the key federal requirements that call for equalizing population, protecting minority voting rights and creating compact and contiguous districts.

“Challenges based on partisan gerrymandering are simply not going to work,” Esenberg said, arguing there is no precedent for federal courts ruling on such a matter.

Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel reported that under the new redistricting, southeastern Wisconsin, with 13 senate districts (out of 33 statewide), finds itself dominated by the GOP. The new districts effectively create eight safe GOP seats and five safe Democratic seats.

“There are arguably four ‘swing’ Senate districts in the Milwaukee TV market today, based on recent election history: those represented by Democrat Bob Wirch and Republicans Alberta Darling, Leah Vukmir and Van Wanggaard,” Gilbert wrote.

He continued, “Under the Republican plan, the first would become a one-sided Democratic seat and the other three would become one-sided GOP seats. Since the region’s other nine Senate seats are already dominated by one party, there would be nothing resembling a contestable Senate seat in the area (except by primary opponents from the same party).”

Senate District 8, for example, now represented by Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), would become significantly less competitive. For example, in 2004 George Bush won the district by a 7.7% margin. Under the new district lines, that win would have resulted in a 22% margin for Bush. Darling faces a recall election on August 9 and is being challenged by Rep. Sandy Pasch (D-Whitefish Bay).

According to a recent poll by the Mellman Group, Pasch currently holds a slight lead over Darling. 47% say that they favor Pasch and 46% favor Darling, with 7% undecided. If Pasch did win the 8th district, she would face a significantly enlarged Republican constituency in the 2012 election. In the redistricting, Shorewood and a section of Milwaukee’s east side, both Democratic strongholds, were moved to Lena Taylor’s (D-Milwaukee) 4th District. In the switch, the 8th District gained Republican-leaning sections of Germantown and Menomonee Falls, Lannon and part of the Town of Lisbon.

Likewise, the 5th Senate District, now represented by Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa), would go from a district with a Republican margin of 7.2% in 2004 to one that would have had a Republican margin of 19% under the redistricting.

In Racine and Kenosha counties, dramatic changes also occurred. Currently, the 21st Senate District includes most of Racine County, and the 22nd Senate District includes most of Kenosha County. Under the redistricting, the two counties’ Republican-leaning suburban and rural sectors have been placed in the 21st District, while the 22nd District includes the electorates of the cities of Kenosha and Racine, which lean Democratic. Sen. Bob Wirch, who is facing a recall election and has been a senator in the 22nd District for 15 years, would find himself living outside his district for the 2012 election. He would have to move or run in the new district.

Statewide, two Democratic recall challengers also live outside of their districts under redistricting: Rep. Fred Clark of Baraboo, who is running against Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), and former Brown County Executive Nancy Nusbaum, challenging Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Allouez).

 Statewide, 11 of the 14 most competitive Senate districts become less competitive under the redistricting, Gilbert said. Three districts actually become slightly more competitive with slightly better margins for Republicans than they were previously.

There are also some significant changes to the maps which affect assembly districts.

The new Congressional map divides Milwaukee County into four different Congressional districts instead of three.

In Milwaukee County, Democratic-leaning Shorewood, Whitefish Bay, Glendale, Brown Deer, Fox Point and Bayside move from Republican Jim Sensenbrenner’s 5th Congressional District to Democrat Gwen Moore’s 4th District. Sensenbrenner’s 5th District, which previously included part of West Allis, now includes all of West Allis. Greenfield also becomes a part of the 5th District. Paul Ryan’s 1st District loses Greenfield but gains more of Waukesha County from Sensenbrenner’s 5th District. River Hills and Ozaukee County move from the 5th District to Republican Tom Petri’s 6th District.

The biggest changes to the new congressional map move Portage County and eastern Wood County from the 7th District, along with the Democratic-leaning cities of Stevens Point, Wisconsin Rapids and Chippewa Falls, and put them into Democrat Ron Kind’s 3rd District, making it more Democratic. The redistricting also moves Republican-leaning areas including Vilas and St. Croix counties into the 7th District, making Republican Sean Duffy’s 7th District slightly more Republican.

At the July 13 public hearing on redistricting, former Congressman David Obey testified. He said the proposed redistricting plan compromises people’s ability to cast a meaningful vote.

“If the package passes, it will be an embarrassment to good government in Wisconsin,” Obey said. “It turns [the redistricting process] on its head, scorns good government, is a raw manipulation of power and shows a disregard for public interest.”

Obey noted that he survived as a Democratic congressman for decades in a district that was only 51% Democratic.

“The map may be legal, but it’s not fair,” said Democratic Sen. Fred Risser of Madison, who has also been involved with redistricting for decades. Risser is the longest-serving state lawmaker in the country, first elected to the Legislature in 1956.

“The Republican redistricting plans are very polarized and extremely partisan.” Risser said. “They cut up communities of interest and unnecessarily limit the competiveness of many districts.”

“Because the Republicans wanted this plan signed into law before the recall elections,” Risser added, “the pubic was given almost no opportunity for input on a matter that is being rammed through the Legislature in ten days and will affect every citizen of the state for next 10 years.”

After the July 20 Assembly vote, Rep. Pasch said, “Simply put, these heavily gerrymandered maps have been rushed through the legislative process without proper public input. Not only do they disparage local control by ignoring the established bottom-up process for drawing our state’s political lines, but legislative Republicans have again violated public trust by handing themselves a blank check of taxpayer money to draw self-protecting maps behind closed doors.”

There is a lot in play and much remains to be seen. In addition to the lawsuit pending in US District Court, there are eight Senate recall elections to be held in August and a threatened recall election of Gov. Scott Walker.