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Archive for Sunday, April 28, 2002

Redistricting disaster

April 28, 2002

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Politics has overwhelmed reason in the state's redistricting process.

It's a Hobson's choice that some leaders in the Kansas Legislature are asking Lawrence residents to make.

The choice is between two congressional redistricting plans, neither of which is good for Lawrence and Douglas County.

The House has approved a map that dips into Lawrence to keep the east-central part of the city and most of the Kansas University campus in the 3rd District and shifts the rest of Lawrence to the 2nd District. The Senate's map puts all of Douglas County in the 2nd District and forms an unwieldy and ridiculous 1st District that stretches from the northwest corner to the southeast corner of the state.

Local legislators who spoke Saturday morning at a Lawrence Chamber of Commerce breakfast made it clear that the redistricting debate is far from settled and that other plans, including some that would keep all of Lawrence in the 3rd District, might be back on the table before a final map is approved.

Because of Lawrence's many ties to the Kansas City area, including KU's Medical Center and Edwards campus, various local officials and groups have fought to keep the city in the 3rd District, now represented by Democrat Dennis Moore. The strong Republican majority, however, is adamant about keeping all of Johnson and Wyandotte counties in the 3rd District, making it impossible to include Lawrence in that district without surpassing the population limit.

So Republican lawmakers are asking Lawrence to choose between two poor alternatives: being split between two districts or having the entire county placed in the 2nd District, represented by Republican Jim Ryun. Either plan can serve the political interests of the Republican Party to minimize the influence of Douglas County, one of only two counties in Kansas to vote for Democrat Al Gore over Republican George Bush in the 2000 presidential election. But neither is a positive plan for Lawrence.

The northwest corner of Douglas County already is in the 2nd District, but moving the entire county into that district cuts Lawrence and KU ties to Kansas City. Although splitting Lawrence between two districts would keep most of the KU campus in the same district, it would slice through the city and county, diminishing residents' sense of unity.

Neither option is good for Lawrence. What's best for Lawrence hasn't carried much weight in this totally political process, but why should local leaders be asked to choose between two poor options and thereby ratify a decision they don't support? Any preference Lawrence officials express for one plan over the other isn't likely to have much impact on legislators. Whatever map is approved by legislators will be driven by politics, not by what Lawrence wants or doesn't want.

There is no perfect answer to the situation. Gerrymandering is a fact of life and will continue to exist until laws or policies forbid it.

In the situation now facing Lawrence, some might argue that the best course of action is for residents to reject both current proposals, stand on principle and support including the entire city in the 3rd District.

It is easy to make a case for tying Lawrence to the metropolitan area, based on history, employment patterns and links involving the university. However, some people advance a compelling argument that splitting the city would mean that its interests and those of the university, would have the potential for two advocates instead of just one.

The weakest case to be made is for shifting the entire county to the 2nd District. Although some say being in the same district with Kansas State University would benefit KU, others fear the two universities would simply compete with one another for federal attention.

Legislators are looking for cover for their redistricting votes and reassurance that no one in Lawrence will challenge the final congressional map in court. Whether the redistricting battle ends next month or eventually winds up in court, the process has been a sad chapter for the state and its Legislature. Perhaps the saddest part of the redistricting process is that it still is attracting so much attention and causing so much political upheaval so late in the session. Legislators have far more important issues to address beginning Wednesday when they return to Topeka than a redistricting process that should have been completed long ago.

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