Speaker Egolf’s comments on redistricting on our Zoom Conversation have made the front page of the New Mexican and the ABQ Journal. We offer his interview again today, but first Sen. Dede Feldman offers her historic perspective on redistricting.
Redistricting Update: Bill sponsors for HB 211, the Redistricting Act, have requested that the bill be rolled over to Wednesday in House Judiciary, as opposed to Monday, where it is now scheduled. They are quite hopeful that the request will be honored. Sponsors of the companion bill, SB 199 expect a friendly substitute to be filed in the Senate. It is also anticipate that it will be heard in Senate Rules on Monday, 9:00am. We await more information on the bill and will update as quickly as possible. Each bill faces a steep climb, with three committee hearings assignments in House and Senate before jumping to the other chamber….and very possibly three more committee assignments. However, HB 211 has passed one committee, House State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs, passing on a unanimous vote.
Given the tremendous interest in this bill, today we offer you a seasoned perspective on redistricting to balance the comments from Speaker Egolf (video at the bottom of this post). We invited Senator Dede Feldman to offer her views and to reflect on her personal experience with the redistricting process 20 years ago. The chart to the left indicates pretty clearly how voters think about this issue and how much it differs from elected politicians, perhaps suggesting a reason for supporting the implementation of a redistricting act in NM.
Senator Dede Feldman served in the NM State Senate for 16 years and since exiting, has made a career of helping others understand the inner workings of the state legislature. Her book, “Inside the New Mexico State Senate: Boots, Suits and Citizens” is a classic if you want to understand the historic roots to the power struggles and machinations about which Retake has been writing lately in relation to the 2021 legislative session. It was also the book that clued Retake to how the election of the Senate Pro-Tem was one of the single most important and least transparent processes in every legislative session. In short, Feldman knows the legislature and so, should be heeded.
She recently wrote an article for the Santa Fe New Mexican about the long-ago and far-away redistricting session in 2001, which she lived through— with some difficulty. It’s called “Taking Each Other to the Mountaintop, Kissing and Pushing one Another over the Side.” It has lessons to teach legislators, lawyers and the pubic about this year’s redistricting exercise, and independent redistricting advocates’ efforts to reform of the system. I thought our readers might be interested in the historic perspective she provides. She generously offered us to reprint her article and suggested that those of you who want to learn more, the shorter piece below is drawn from her longer work called Redistricting Revenge that’s posted on her blog http://senatorfeldman.typepad.com. Below we offer Feldman’s thoughts on the redistricting process.
Taking Each Other to the Mountaintop, Kissing and Pushing one Another over the Side, Sen. Dede Feldman
As the 2021 Legislature prepares for its decennial redistricting task and debates a stronger call to reform the process than ever before, I am thrown back to the first redistricting session I endured two decades ago in 2001. Then, as now, the Legislature was controlled by Democrats, but the governor was Republican Gary Johnson.
In contrast to the scores of court cases that determined district lines for Congress and the legislatures before and after, the New Mexico Senate map did not go to court in 2002. It has been the only exception in recent memory. Last time, in 2010, both Senate and House maps (as well as the congressional one) went to the courts, where lawyers and fees consumed $6 million in taxpayer dollars.
Why so different in 2002? The map was a compromise between the Democrats and the Republican members based on the one principle that trumped all others including compactness and preservation of communities of interest.
That principle was incumbent protection.
The compromise map was drawn up by a committee appointed by then-Senate President Pro Tem Richard Romero, who — with the help of a coalition of Democrats and Republicans — had overthrown the longtime Senate powerhouse, Manny Aragon. The redistricting committee was composed of an even number of Democrats and Republicans.
The regular redistricting session in the fall of 2001 was a disaster. Johnson vetoed all the maps, which passed largely on a partisan basis. Six months of public hearings throughout the state, chaired by Sen. Leonard Tsosie (who gave ample voice to Native Americans, Hispanics and other minorities who had been cracked and packed in earlier redistricting sessions), went down the drain. The lingering dispute between Aragon and Romero divided the Democrats.
Population shifts presented problems. The east side of the state had lost population and would normally lose a (Republican) seat. The west side of Albuquerque had grown and was clamoring for representation. Conspiracy theories abounded about who would have to lose a seat — or which incumbents would be paired off against each other.
A mock memorial bill was introduced during the ruthless process to bid farewell to senators who would be paired off in primaries or lose their seats because they were moved into other districts. It accurately described the process — that of “legislators taking each other to the mountaintop, kissing, and then pushing one another over the side.”
The agony was finally ended with a status quo map that garnered bipartisan support and forestalled a veto. It froze the Democratic advantage at 22-14, did not get rid of an east-side seat or create a west-side one in Albuquerque, as population demanded — but it did preserve incumbents. There were few swing districts created where either a Democrat or a Republican could win. No one went to the mountaintop, but it required considerable contortions to avoid the trip.
My own District 13 in the north valley of Albuquerque, for example, ended up looking like a machine gun pointing at the heights of Albuquerque, a classic gerrymander if ever there were one. The odd shape resulted from the need to expand to match the average population of each Senate district. Most of the new voters I gained were registered Republicans. They didn’t have much in common with the largely Hispanic, traditional north valley, a “community of interest” that regularly voted for Democrats. This was also the case for precinct 5, a long finger running up into the village of Los Ranchos, a well-to-do area that lines the area east of the Rio Grande. This precinct was rejected by the incumbent then representing it because it included the home of her archrival, a former senator. I absorbed it. I could afford to.
The frozen map, based on incumbent protection, tended to increase the seniority of members, allowing for little change in the leadership and, most importantly — little reason to compromise on policy. Espousing the Democratic Party line, win or lose, increased my chances of success in a general election. Republican senators were in the same boat. Yet common ground and compromise are needed to move forward on issues like health care, the environment and economic development. Gridlock often resulted.
This year, a bipartisan task force made up of legislators, ex judges, civil rights advocates and other good-government groups, has come up with a solid plan to allow the Legislature to share the line drawing with an independent commission. It is incorporated in Senate Bill 199 and House Bill 211.
I hope our legislators will not just reject this reform because it diminishes their power. Twenty-five other states use commissions that either have primary responsibility or are advisory. We would not be the first.
Fairness and transparency, along with less gerrymandering, incumbent protection and partisan jockeying will lead to greater confidence in our system and more credibility for legislators themselves. That kind of confidence brings more participation and a more vigorous democracy. And we don’t even need to go to the mountaintop.
Dede Feldman served 16 years in the New Mexico Senate. Her article is derived from a longer article that is posted on her blog at senatorfeldman.typepad.com.
Speaker Egolf Offers His Views On Redistricting
We’ve heard now from Senator Feldman. Below at 16M 20S, I ask the Speaker our question about redistricting and his response follows. Next week
Categories: Local-State Government & Legislation