Republicans try to reshape Maine's political landscape

Posted Wednesday, August 17, 2011 in News

The two maps above show changes required by the Republican and Democratic members of the committee.  The red shows the number of towns that would have to be moved.  The Republican plan requires movement of three whole counties - Sagadahoc, Lincoln, and Knox - into the second district and the movement of the Lewiston/Auburn area and western Maine into the first district.  The Democratic plan requires the movement of only one town - Vassalboro - into the second district.

By Marian McCue

AUGUSTA --  It may be only lines drawn on a map, but the Congressional redistricting plan proposed by Republican legislators has already kicked off a political skirmish.

The Democrats also submitted their own plan, and as soon as the competing plans were rolled out at a meeting Monday, the two parties attacked each others’ plans. The Congressional Districts must be redrawn after each decennial census to ensure that the population in each district is as close to equal as possible.

Under the Republican plan, which moves several counties from one Congressional District to another, as many as 360,000 people could suddenly find themselves in a different Congressional district with a new Representative to Congress. But Republicans argue that their plan is best because they have reduced the population variance between the two Districts down to one person.

The Democrats also unveiled a plan that would leave the current shape of Maine’s Congressional Districts mostly unchanged, but would move Vassalboro from the First into the Second District. The population variance in their plan is 11 people.

The Second District, which now covers mostly northern Maine as well as Lewiston and Auburn, is now represented by Congressman Mike Michaud, a Democrat from Millinocket. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree represents the First District which includes sourthern Maine and stretches up the coast as far as North Haven, where Pingree lives.

The plan proposed by Republicans could at a minimum, force Pingree to move, or run against Michaud. While legally, Representatives to Congress do not need to live in the districts they represent, it wouldn’t be easy to get elected that way. Pingree's husband, Donald Sussman, maintains a residence in Portland.

At Monday’s meeting, Republican members of the Commission were not shy about wanting to upend the political status quo, in which Democrats have represented both Maine Congressional districts for several terms.

 “We’re not here to protect two Democratic Congressmen,” said Rep. Ken Fredette (R-Newport). “We’re not looking at the political niceties to protect two incumbents and the status quo.”

But Democrats criticized the plan for moving so many people, fully a quarter of Maine’s population, from one district to another, and accused the Republicans of trying to pit Democrats against each other.

“The last thing you want to do is pit two incumbents against each other,” said Rep. John Martin, (D- Eagle Lake).  “These incumbents both have experience in Congress that is useful to Maine.”

The way Maine’s Congressional Districts are now set up, the First and Second Districts are divided on a line running roughly from west to east, with a dip into Androscoggin County which brings it into the Second District.

The Republicans’ proposed new First District would hug the southern counties, and run up along the western border of Maine;  from York County through Portland and Cumberland Country, north and west to the northern tip of Oxford County. This new First District would create another rural district that would likely be hospitable to Republican candidates.

The proposed new First Congressional District would include Androscoggin County. The Second District would include the coastal areas from Lincoln up through Hancock and Washington Counties and up through the northern reaches of the state.

With the Republicans controlling both houses of the Legislature, the chances for this redistricting plan may seem bright, but it must receive a two-thirds vote. It then goes to the Governor for his signature. If the Legislature cannot agree on a plan, it would go to the Maine Supreme Court. If a plan can still not be developed, the Federal District Court judges would have the final say. That’s because the the Federal Court mandated that the redistricting occur before the next Congressional elections, because there was great population inequality between the two districts. The judges ruled, in response to a lawsuit from two Cape Elizabeth residents, that the lines had to be redrawn this year, instead of waiting until 2013 which has been Maine’s recent practice.

New chances for Republicans?

One beneficiary of a potential new Second District might be Senate President Kevin Raye, (R-Washington County) who is expected to run for Congress next year against Michaud. With the reliably Democratic Androscoggin County cities removed from that district, the redrawn District could be easier for Raye.

The two vastly different plans were introduced at a meeting of the fifteen member Redistricting Commission on Monday morning, a meeting that was not advertised or listed on any legislative calendar.

The meeting turned testy at times, as Democrats responded forcefully to the Republicans’ claim that their plan should be judged mainly by the fact that it has produced the smallest variance in population between the two new districts, a variance of one person. The Democratic plan has a variance of 11 people.

Sen. Seth Goodall, (D – Sagadahoc) accused Republicans of not negotiating in good faith because they were setting the deviation standard as the only criteria on which to draw the district lines. That comment drew a strong objection from Rep. Kenneth Fredette (R-Newport).

Recent Maine Supreme Court rulings have cited other criteria as important in the drawing of districts. These include moving the least number of people from one district to another, and keeping communities of interest and counties together.

The fact that the redistricting plans require a two-thirds vote in the Legislature may strengthen the chances for a compromise. But that requirement is only in statute, not in the Constitution, and some have rumored that Republicans could try and change that.

Such a move, according to Sen. Phil Bartlett (D-Cumberland)  would be met by heavy resistance.

“It will be pretty remarkable and upsetting if they try and change the statute,” said Bartlett, who noted that during the floor debates on the joint order creating the Commission, members of both parties spoke in favor of keeping the requirement for two-thirds.

“We would try to block it and go to court if they did that,” said Bartlett, who is a member of the Commission. He also noted that the Republican redistricting plan moves 10,000 registered voters into the Second District, which might provide a margin for Raye to win there.

Despite their differences, both parties have said that they are willing to compromise. A public hearing on the redistricting plan is set for Tuesday, Aug. 23 at 9 a.m. in Room 228 in the State House.

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