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Democrats open bidding in the Missouri Senate-district-drawing contest

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 19, 2012 - The same day of the panel's first full meeting, Democrats on the new state Senate redistricting commission swiftly filed a proposed map that revamps the state's 34 state Senate seats.

Some commission Republicans, as well as the state Republican Party, are furious.

The GOP is contending that the proposed map -- filed just before midnight Saturday -- is too Democratic. And some accuse Gov. Jay Nixon, the Democrat who named the 10-member bipartisan commission, of orchestrating the proposal.

The state Republican Party said in a statement Sunday: "Given the constitutional issues that invalidated the previous state Senate map and the tight timeline our commission is facing to complete our deliberations, we are disappointed that Governor Nixon and his Democratic commissioners have chosen to unilaterally offer a map that, like previous plans struck down by the courts, clearly violates the Missouri constitution."

Commission chairman Doug Harpool says it's some Republicans who are overreacting -- and playing politics.

He also denied that Nixon had anything to do with the new map, which Harpool said is the most pro-Republican map Democrats have proposed throughout the redistricting process that began last spring.

"It was not intended as a 'take it or leave it' map," Harpool said. "It's a 'let's get the discussion started' proposal."

Harpool said he believed the new map met the constitutional requirements, but he was willing to discuss the matter with those who allege otherwise.

He added that Republicans can best make their case by drawing and submitting their own map, rather than simply complaining about the ones that the Democrats file.

Clock is ticking

The new commission held its first organizational meeting on Saturday and is under a tight timeline because candidate filing is set to begin Feb. 28, although legislators are moving to pass a bill this week that would delay filing for a month.

The state Senate panel already is in the midst of three public hearings, which began Sunday in Jefferson City and conclude with one Tuesday in downtown St. Louis.

Nixon recently named the panel's 10 members, five from each party, after the state Supreme Court tossed out an earlier state Senate map. That map had been drawn by judges after the first commission -- also headed by Harpool -- failed last summer to draw up a map that was supported by at least seven commissioners, as mandated by the state constitution.

Harpool said that the Democrats' new proposed map guarantees that Republicans will hold at least 60 percent of the 34 state Senate seats over the next decade. He asserted that some Republicans are insisting that their party have a lock on at least 70 percent of the seats.

Harpool contended that's unfair. He said that Republicans -- who now hold 26 of the 34 seats -- have had a huge boundary advantage under the current map (drawn by judges in 2001) that belies the vote totals.

Statewide, he said, Democratic state Senate candidates have garnered 51 percent of all the Senate votes cast -- but that edge hasn't helped them because of the way the boundaries are drawn.

Harpool said that Democrats are not seeking a map that guarantees a 50-50 split, but that they do want something fairer than the current boundaries.

Republican commissioner Marc Ellinger said that the new map also violates the state constitution because at least one county -- Clay County in suburban Kansas City is split between three state Senate districts. The state constitution appears to bar a three-way split, unless a county -- like St. Louis County -- is too big to lie wholly within a Senate district.

Ellinger said he had not talked to Harpool, but that he had been told privately by others that the new map had been filed at the behest of Nixon and that "it's the governor's map."

Harpool said he drew it up, and Nixon wasn't involved.

Districts move in St. Louis area

In any case the proposed map's impact on the St. Louis area is not as dramatic as the changes stipulated in the version that got tossed out by the state Supreme Court.

The 24th District, now in central St. Louis County and held by Republican John Lamping of Frontenac, would be shifted outstate. That also was a change in the now-scuttled map.

But the Democrats' proposal, said Harpool, makes fewer changes in the 7th and 15th Districts -- now held by Republicans Jane Cunningham and Eric Schmitt, respectively. And the changes that are made make the districts more Republican, he said.

The 1st District, held by Republican Jim Lembke of Lemay, would become slightly more Democratic-leaning than it does now.

The two main districts in the city of St. Louis -- the 4th and the 5th -- would expand to include more territory in north St. Louis County.

The upshot, said Harpool, is that the new map would guarantee at least four districts in St. Louis and Kansas City in which a majority of the population is African-American.

Harpool said that commission Democrats involved in the map-drawing had been conferring with Republicans, and thought they had a deal. But then other Republicans got upset, he said. He declined to name any of the people involved.

If candidate-filing is moved, so that it begins on March 27, the commission effectively has only until March 11 to reach an agreement on a map and meet the constitution's mandate for a 15-day public comment period, Harpool said.

To fit within that timeline, he said it would be better -- if the commission remains split -- for the panel to swiftly declare an impasse and toss the map-drawing over to state judges, as stipulated in the state constitution.

Harpool also warned that some Republicans are being misled if they believe that they can engineer the process so that the current district boundaries are maintained for this fall's elections.

Many of the current districts now have too many people, or too few, he said, violating the federal "one-man, one-vote" mandate and the Voting Rights Act.

If new boundaries are not in place when filing begins, Harpool continued, a federal lawsuit then would be filed.

"If we don't get this done before filing opens," Harpool said, "it's the equivalent of turning it over to a federal judge to draw up the districts."

He added that he expected neither party wanted to see that happen.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.