Topeka — In the political fight of the decade, Kansas Democrats are begging for mercy, and somehow Laura McClure, a Democratic legislator from western Kansas, is on the sacrificial altar.
The question of whether she is a willing sacrifice or was blackmailed by Republicans provides a look at how drawing political boundaries has little to do with the state's interest and everything to do with gaining political advantage.
The Kansas House is scheduled today to consider a bill that realigns the boundaries of the 125 House districts to accommodate shifts in population recorded by the 2000 Census.
Redrawing the boundaries becomes an exercise in raw political muscle as legislators and political parties angle to have districts drawn that will best suit them.
This time around, Democrats are the 98-pound weaklings. They are outnumbered 30-10 in the state Senate, 79-46 in the House and 1-0 in the governor's office. It's the first time in 30 years that Democrats don't have a majority in at least one chamber or a Democrat in the governor's office to provide a check to Republican redistricting plans.
"Throughout the process, we have been given a choice of bad options. The best we can do is minimize the damage," said House Democratic Leader Jim Garner of Coffeyville.
Democrats looked despondent when asked to comment on the district boundaries they may have to live with for the next 10 years.
None of them is more affected than McClure, a 10-year rural legislator from Osborne County who has managed to win as a Democrat in a district that is 57 percent Republican, 25 percent Democratic and 18 percent unaffiliated.
Surrounded by Republican legislators in that part of the state, McClure said she knew she would be a target when Republicans started to collapse districts.
After months of meetings, two plans emerged from the Republican caucus.
Under one plan, several western Kansas Democrats probably would have been defeated in drastically altered districts. As many as eight House Democrats could have been lost in this year's election, according to Democrats.
Under the second, those Democrats would be less damaged, but McClure's home would be part of another district, which is represented by Dan Johnson, R-Hays.
The only catch was that McClure, an effective campaigner, had to promise to retire from the Legislature and not run against Johnson, who is chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. Republicans said they didn't want to put Johnson in any political danger. Details of the deal allegedly agreed to last week became known among select House members Tuesday as they prepared to debate new district maps today on the House floor.
McClure said she was asked by Speaker Pro Tem Clay Aurand, R-Courtland, to make the promise, and McClure did.
"If that's what it took, I said, 'Fine,'" she said.
Aurand denies he blackmailed McClure. He said he asked her if she would agree not to run against Johnson if Republicans approved that plan. He said he didn't demand McClure make a promise.
"That really frosts my butt," Aurand said of the accusations.
In fact, he said it was the Democrats who informed him that McClure was ready to resign from the Legislature.
"I really want her to have a district she can win," Aurand said Tuesday after a nearly hour-long discussion with McClure about what happened.
But Aurand conceded if McClure backs out of her promise now, House Republicans would probably push for the alternative map, which hurts Democrats more.
Assistant Democratic Leader Dennis McKinney of Greensburg said the Republicans made McClure promise not to run against Johnson and were trying to change their story.
McKinney said from the start Republicans have sought every advantage in redistricting.
"They have refused to bite the bullet, no matter how small the bullet is," he said.