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Missouri lawmakers study new maps and weigh their options

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 2, 2011 - At first glance, state Rep. Chris Carter thought that the new House district-boundary map released this week reflected judicial anger at being drawn into the process in the first place.

"When I first saw the map, I shook my head,'' said Carter, who was placed into a St. Louis district with two fellow Democratic legislators. "I personally thought it was a message from the judges, 'We don't like to do this.' "

But by Thursday, Carter had moved on and taken action. He talked to the other legislators in the new 76th District -- Reps. Karla May and Jamilah Nasheed -- and the trio began to map out alternatives.

Nasheed and Carter predict that two of the three will either: A) Move to neighboring vacant House districts or B) Run in 2012 for something else.

Nasheed, for example, is giving a hard look at the 5th District state Senate seat. "I'm definitely not running against Karla May or Chris Carter,'' Nasheed said.

Running for the 5th District could mean that Nasheed challenges incumbent Democrat Robin Wright Jones, D-St. Louis, who has been under fire for some campaign-finance issues.

Nasheed said she'd heard that Jones wouldn't seek re-election. But Jones said in a brief emailed response that she is "absolutely" planning to seek a second term.

Such turmoil, amid a lot of talk, appears to be the pattern as Missouri's 163 state House members and 34 state senators consider their options in the wake of the new maps that -- by all accounts -- dramatically shift many districts or their boundaries.

May, Carter and Nasheed are among at least 50 state House members who were drawn into districts that include one or more colleagues. Several area state senators are in similar predicaments.

Missouri appellate judges took over the map-drawing jobs for the House and Senate when two bipartisan commissions, set by Gov. Jay Nixon, failed to reach the consensus required under the Missouri constitution.

African-American legislators initially raised concerns because at least five incumbents appear at risk because of the way the new boundaries are drawn. The chair of the judicial commission, Judge Lisa White Hardwick, said in a statement when the maps were issued that federal Voting Rights requirements were taken into account.

But now, state Rep. Tishaura Jones shares the optimism of Carter and Nasheed that the new districts may offer more opportunities for minority legislators -- even if current incumbents may feel political pain.

Jones, D-St. Louis, cites the judicial panel's statistics that show 18 new districts statewide will have majority minority populations. Sixteen of those districts should favor African-American candidates. That's one more than the 15 districts now represented by African-Americans.

But while the big picture may look better for African-American legislators, the individual predicaments are more mixed. Jones, for example, says her new district will have a larger minority population -- but it will no longer include parts of Soulard and other near South Side areas that she has enjoyed representing.

Jones said she is still mulling over whether to run in the new 79th District -- or go with another option and run for St. Louis city treasurer.

The 2012 political year, she said, "is going to be pretty heated, to say the least."

A few legislators who were happy with their new boundaries were openly celebrating their good fortune.

State Sen. Brian Nieves, R-Washington, was pleased to jettison the part of his district in St. Louis County, which is being replaced by rural territory. Tweeted Nieves on Thursday:

"I'm ssooo Blessed! Although its a Sad Goodbye to the STL County portion of my district, I'm THRILLED to gain Crawford & Gasconade Counties!!"

Lawsuits or "Let's Make a Deal"?

On Thursday, three St. Louis County legislators drawn into the new 89th District -- Republicans John Diehl of Town and Country, Rick Stream of Kirkwood and Cole McNary of Chesterfield -- each agreed to go their separate ways.

McNary is running for state treasurer in 2012. Stream plans to move into the neighboring 90th District, which takes in much of his current territory. Diehl will run in the new 89th.

"Rick and I are old friends,'' Diehl said. "We resolved it among ourselves."

State Rep. Stacey Newman, D-Richmond Heights, said she's also in talks with fellow Democrat Susan Carlson, D-St. Louis, since the two have been drawn into the same new district.

Newman, who heads the House Progressive Caucus, said she's particularly concerned about preserving at least the same number of progressive House Democrats as hold office now.

But looking at the new districts and their boundaries, she observed drily, "Obvously, the lines were not drawn with incumbents in mind."

The new districts were drawn by six judges. Three -- Judges Hardwick, Robert G. Dowd Jr. and Nancy Steffen Rahmeyer -- had been appointed to their current posts by Democratic governors. The other three -- Judges Don E. Burrell Jr., Roy L. Richter and James E. Welsh -- were named by a Republican governor.

Hardwick has issued the only statement, emphasizing that the judges drew the new districts to meet all state and federal requirements.

But some legislators in both parties have been threatening possible suits.

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, for instance, was placed in the same district as Rep. Caleb Jones, R-California.

While Kelly said he would be "happy to run in" in his reconfigured new district, "I want to posit the possibility that legislators might not like it and it may also be an ineptly drawn plan."

He asserted that the judges didn't put a lot of attention to details, pointing to the example of placing House Majority Leader Tim Jones, R-Eureka, and Rep. Paul Curtman, R-Pacific, in the same district.

"To get Curtman into Jones' district, there's actually a little bump there that puts him in," Kelly said. "Anybody who was doing their job correctly would have looked at that and said 'Oh, this is inappropriate.' "

House Majority Leader Tim Jones -- a Eureka Republican who will likely be speaker of the House next year -- said he's spoken with Curtman and added it's unlikely the two will be in a Republican primary.

Jones said Curtman has two districts that are "literally a stone's throw away from him" that he could run in.

"He has a lot of options," said Jones, "He and I have already spoken. He is not interested in running in a primary against the sitting majority leader who is going to be the next House speaker [and has] a half million dollars sitting in the bank. Because he wants and needs my help to retain his seat and he's got several options open to him."

UPDATE: In an interview Friday, Curtman confirmed he would not run against Jones in a primary. He said he is "exploring the options" where he could "best serve as a representative."

Curtman noted that state law has looser residency requirements, when it comes to redistricting of legislative seats.

While Jones said Curtman may have an easy option of moving, that may not be as simple for lawmakers who live in more rural parts of the state.

"The places where we're going to have issues is outstate, rural areas that cover great amounts of space where someone cannot simply move across town," Jones said. "Luckily in the congested areas of St. Louis County where the most damage was done, it's going to be the easiest for people to move. They literally have to move down the street in some instances. Things will work out, many places will work out. But as you said, there are going to be a couple that are going to be more problematic."

While Jones agreed with Kelly that there could potentially be legal action against the maps, he said there could be other unintended consequences. He questioned why so many incumbents were lumped into the same districts.

"I think it was a very short-sighted experiment," Jones said "And I think it did a disservice to the voters and the citizens of this state who'd elected these people and now suddenly their incumbent is taken away from them."

Kelly also contended that there may have been violations of the Missouri Sunshine Law during the decision-making process, which Columbia Daily Tribune reporter Rudi Keller detailed last month, that could also provide grounds for a legal challenge.

Kelly was among several legislators and political activists who have said the Senate map may be challenged because it split counties into multiple Senate districts in a manner that they believe may violate the Missouri constitution.

"I think it's particularly bad when the court doesn't follow the law," said Kelly, who was a judge before returning to the legislature in 2008. "Having been a judge, I am particularly sensitive to that, because it creates the impressions that the courts think of the law as not for them."

Which Court, if Any?

In the past, critics have gone to federal court to file lawsuits against Missouri legislative maps drawn by judges. But some legal sources say there's no outright prohibition in the state constitution against suits filed in state courts.

Hardwick's staff referred press queries to the Missouri attorney general's office, which issued a cryptic statement late Thursday: "We understand that individuals from both political parties are frustrated with the maps. We take the concerns on both sides of the aisle seriously and have solicited input from each side regarding their respective positions."

Opponents of the Senate map have pointed, as an example, to the way Johnson, Cass and St. Charles counties are divided, asserting that they violate a constitutional prohibition against splitting certain counties to create Senate districts.

Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, was among those affected by the decision to split Johnson County. His residence is now in the 21st District, which includes a number of counties -- such as Saline, Lafayette and Pettis county -- that were not in his old 31st Senate district.

"I've had people from inside the district and across the state call me up and talk about the unconstitutionality," Pearce said. "... It's blatantly unfair and it shouldn't have been done."

But even though other Republicans -- such as Rep. Mike McGhee, R-Odessa -- have started fundraising committees to run for the 21st District, Pearce said he will not move to run in the nearby 31st District. He also said he doesn't plan to file a lawsuit, but added he's heard interest from others.

"I'm going to run in the 21st. In fact, I've already made a trip to Marshall and visited with the Marshall Rotary Club at noon today," Pearce said. "I am not going to move. I've asked my family to sacrifice so many things. That's just something I'm personally not willing to ask them to do."

"The way I look at it," he added, "you deal with the cards that you're dealt. And so, I'm going to work hard and try to get elected in the 21st senatorial district."

Back in St. Louis, Rep. Tishaura Jones offers a similar sentiment. "If the commissions appointed by the governor had approved maps,'' she said, "we wouldn't be in this predicament."