The Race to Gerrymander

Democrats have a parallel campaign to win the House.
It starts in the states.

By Rachel Morris

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On a fresh Saturday morning in early September, about 15 people gather in an office in a rundown mall in Monroe, Mich., to campaign for Bob Schockman, a first-time Democratic candidate for the state Senate. Monroe is a small city of about 22,000 people 40 miles from Detroit. That day, the city’s paper notes that the county’s income growth is the third slowest in the nation; “for sale” and foreclosure signs are more evident in the yards of Monroe’s modest houses than placards for either political party.         
 
Schockman is tall and gangly with thinning iron grey hair and bright eyes. He has an irrepressible enthusiasm for solving local problems, which include vanishing auto jobs and trash shipped into the area from Canada for 21 cents a ton. He has arrived at his candidacy the old-fashioned way, by moving up through a series of local offices won with do-it-yourself campaigns. Schockman tells me that when he ran for his current job, which is clerk of the nearby settlement of Bedford, he knocked on every door in town. But the operation that revolves around his Senate run has a decidedly professional quality. On this day, Schockman is accompanied by his wife Joan, a field organizer called Patrick, and State Sen. Mark Schauer, Michigan’s Democratic Senate floor leader. The lean, tanned Schauer has the brisk air of a practiced politician; he wears a crisp white shirt and an electronic organizer is clipped to his tan trousers.    

We drive to a quiet residential street, and Patrick hands out Palm Pilots connected to an online voter database. The database has selected the addresses of people who don’t support the same party every election, and Democratic-inclined people who don’t always vote. Patrick calls these “persuasion doors.”  Schockman lets Joan take care of the Palm Pilot and sets off energetically. “I just love doing this,” he tells me.

Subscribe Online & Save 33%Meanwhile, on one side of the street, Schauer moves from house to house with impressive efficiency. He makes a genial introduction (“I’m walkin’ for Bob Schockman”), and quickly establishes how the person intends to vote, if he or she has a spouse, and whether the spouse plans to vote the same way. He briefly pitches Schockman, plugs the Democrats higher up the ticket, and asks if he can put a sign for Schockman in the yard. Then he “codes” this information in the Palm Pilot and moves to the next door. Across the street, Schockman moves more slowly. He has a gentle, easy manner with the people he meets. At one house, he discovers that the woman who answers the door attended the same high school that he did; at another, he is enchanted by the Michigan Wolverines collar worn by the owner’s dog, which becomes so excited at the attention that it urinates on the porch. Occasionally Schockman knocks on doors that aren’t listed in the database. “I feel funny about leaving a house untouched,” he admits. Sometimes, he becomes engrossed in conversations about the growing tendency of union members to vote Republican, or the University of Michigan football game that day that has been delayed by rain. At such moments, Schauer appears to gently nudge him along, after first inquiring whether the person has a spouse, and how they would feel about putting one of Schockman’s signs in their yard.

It might seem unusual for a novice challenger like Schockman, whose opponent is very well-funded, to merit such professional backing. One explanation is that this November, Michigan Democrats hope to win six seats to control the state Senate for the first time in 20 years. More intriguingly, though, they also have an eye on redistricting. After the 2000 election, Michigan Republicans controlled all three branches of state government, and redrew congressional lines to give the GOP a 9-6 advantage in the delegation, although the state voted for the Democratic candidate in the last four presidential elections.  Schauer aims to reverse that. He’s thinking long-term, but if his party holds the governorship and wins the state house, he doesn’t see any need to wait to revisit the electoral map. “If we have the kind of year that’s possible,” he said, “I don’t have any qualms about making the case that Michigan’s legislative and congressional seats are not in conformance with the balance of the state.”    

Michigan isn’t the only place where state elections have become infused with national ambitions. Since June, when the U.S. Supreme Court largely upheld Tom DeLay’s audacious mid-decade redistricting of Texas, many national Democrats have been turning their attention to elections for state legislatures, which in all but eight states draw the boundaries of congressional seats according to the census. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), a K-Street political organization focused on state races, is helping candidates in places like Michigan with money, fundraising assistance, training, and logistical support. Emily’s List, a large political action committee that aims to elect more pro-choice women to Congress, is also pouring resources into state campaigns, and training both male and female candidates with the aim of winning legislative chambers to control redistricting. And this August, the DLCC, along with other national groups, established a tax-exempt organization called Foundation for the Future, which plans to raise and spend $17 million to coordinate Democrats’ long-term redistricting efforts.  Political reporters this year have been understandably consumed with the few dozen close congressional races that could shift the balance of power in Washington after November. But they’ve missed a similarly fierce and focused battle over state legislative seats, one that could be just as important in determining control of the House in the not-so-distant future. This year, 83 percent of the country’s 7,382 statehouse seats are up for reelection. DLCC strategists have calculated that if the party wins just 50 of those in the right places, it could ultimately gain 15 seats in Congress.

But when it comes to matching Republicans at redistricting, Democrats face a steep climb. Over the past 20 years, Republicans have turned the arcane process to startling advantage.  That’s partly because they’ve worked harder and spent more money, but it’s also because of the way they’ve thought about it. As in so many things, Republicans have applied a fierce winner-takes-all mentality to the objective of gaining and holding a majority in the House. Democrats, while long aware of redistricting’s importance, have more often let local and factional politics overwhelm their national interests. It’s not yet clear what will become of their new initiatives, but the support given to people like Bob Schockman indicates that some Democrats have been jolted into thinking bigger and tougher —that is to say, thinking a little more like Republicans.

 Behind the lines 

In one sense, attempting to rig the electoral system in one’s favor is an art of politicking as old as the stump speech or the filibuster. Gerrymandering pre-dates the Founding Fathers; the term itself was coined in 1811, when Massachussets Governor Elbridge Gerry was derided for approving a district for a supporter shaped like a salamander. But redistricting’s modern era only really began in the 1960s, when an energetic Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren established the principle of “one man, one vote,” and Lyndon Johnson’s Voting Rights Act required the creation of districts in which minorities could conceivably be elected. These mandates caused nearly every state to redraw district lines according to the census, which officials did using adding machines, magic markers, and maps pinned to office walls. The first redrawing occurred during a high-water mark of Democratic power, and the subsequent flurry of gerrymandering helped cement Democratic dominance of many state legislatures, as well as of the House.

Republicans began to grasp the significance of that fact in the late 1970s. At the time, Republicans held only 158 seats in the House; at the state level GOP legislators were outnumbered by Democrats by more than two to one, and didn’t control a single chamber in the South. “Unless they could do something about this, the Republican Party had little prospect of becoming a majority party,” said Mark Braden, a former redistricting attorney for the Republican National Committee (RNC). By the late 1980s, RNC chairman Lee Atwater had unveiled a three-part strategy: winning state legislative seats, investing in technology, and litigating aggressively. ‘‘Reapportionment,” Atwater declared, “is our number one national goal.”    

The legal component of this strategy was by far the most fruitful. Using the Voting Rights Act, which had been reauthorized with a provision that minorities must be able to elect a “candidate of their choice,” Republican lawyers pushed for districts packed heavily with minorities. This argument addressed a very real problem. Since regular redistricting began in the 1960s, many Southern white Democrats had been content to represent districts with a convenient core of black voters—enough to help them win, but not enough to elect a black representative. When Republicans approached groups like the NAACP in the 1980s, with offers of free mapping software and support for so-called “minority-majority districts” in which minorities would comprise 60 or 70 percent of the voters, many black and Hispanic leaders leapt at the offer. Conveniently for Republicans, the strategy concentrated voters who tended to support Democrats, while allowing Republican voters to be spread more effectively. (In the business, this is known as a “pack-and-crack” technique). Benjamin Ginsberg, a Republican attorney who was one of the strategy’s chief architects, notoriously dubbed it “Project Ratfuck.”

House Democrats had also formed their own national redistricting effort in the 1980s, but it was more of an ad hoc affair. (Republicans were estimated to have outspent Democrats on redistricting by as much as 10 to one).  More troublingly, Republicans capitalized on a long-standing tendency among white Democrats to take their black supporters for granted. “You had the old entrenched Anglo representatives refusing to deal with the reality that there would be minority districts drawn,” said Matt Angle, a former chief of staff to Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas). “You didn’t have Democrats working with minorities.” The consequences were transformative. The results of redistricting were muted in the 1992 elections, but became evident in the Republican landslide of 1994. That year, white Democrats virtually disappeared from the South, helping the GOP to gain key states like Georgia and to permanently shift the South into their column. Tom Hofeller, then the RNC’s redistricting guru, told reporters that the remapping “helped set the stage for the Republican takeover.”

For the next round of redistricting, scheduled to occur after the 2000 census, the stakes were even higher. This time, the outcome of redistricting would be crucial, as in 1999 Republicans only held the House by 11 seats (before 1990, Democrats had an 85-seat majority). Once again, Republicans prepared earlier and poured money into the 2000 legislative elections in critical states like Pennsylvania. Some Democrats, particularly Frost, advocated a similarly ambitious approach, but the 1994 wipeout had thrown the party into something of a tailspin, and for the next few years presidential contests consumed much of its energy and money. Eventually Democrats did devote considerable attention to state elections and preparing for the census, but they had already lost valuable time. 

After 2000, Democrats found themselves entirely locked out of redistricting in four large swing states where Republicans had won all three branches of government: Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. “In those states we got hammered,” one Democratic redistricting operative said. In Pennsylvania, GOP legislators, urged on by DeLay and assisted by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.), produced a map that delivered the party 12 of the state’s 19 congressional seats. Florida, the quintessential swing state, wound up with 18 Republicans and seven Democrats. Gore won 50.7 percent of the vote in these four states in 2000, and that year Democrats held 35 of their 77 House seats. After 2002, Democrats held only 26. (Mark Gersh, a Democratic redistricting expert, concluded in a study of that election that Democrats were “steamrollered, not by George W. Bush, but by redistricting”).

And while Republicans had made the most of states where they had unilateral control, even when Democrats had more influence they often brokered deals to protect incumbents rather than seeking to gain more seats. “Some institutional power within our party didn’t want a national redistricting strategy messing with deals within their states,” said a Democratic strategist involved with the redistricting effort. “The Republicans didn’t have as much of a state boss mentality.”

Nowhere was this more evident than in California and Illinois, two states where Democrats controlled the entire process. While Republicans in Pennsylvania and Michigan were producing take-no-prisoners maps, in perennially blue Illinois, state Democrats made what one Democratic redistricting lawyer describes as a “crappy deal” with Speaker Dennis Hastert. Mindful of the money Hastert brings to the state in earmarks, Illinois Democrats produced a a map that generated at least two fewer Democratic House seats than it might have.

In California, the arrangement went something like this: State Democrats solidified their grasp on Sacramento and strengthened the existing seats of congressional members, without increasing their number. Republicans, who agreed not to challenge the map in court or introduce a redistricting-reform ballot initiative, were prepared to take state-level losses in return for making their 20 congressional seats safer—with the overriding goal of maintaining the GOP’s House majority. This incumbency-protection racket produced some truly bizarre cartography. One slender district, known as the “ribbon of shame,” snakes down the Pacific coast, 500 miles long and in some places only 500 yards wide.  Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the delegation’s point man for redistricting, now represents a district shaped like a set of headphones, drawn by his brother, which maneuvered around a pocket of Latino voters so Berman wouldn’t face a strong Latino primary opponent. The map may have pleased California Democrats and national Republicans, but the real losers were the state’s voters: in 2004 not a single congressional or legislative seat changed hands.

It’s also becoming increasingly apparent that Democrats made a bad trade-off. For example, Republican voters were siphoned from Democratic districts and given to Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) in an effort to make all the representatives more secure. Pombo is unexpectedly vulnerable this year, but the map’s configuration makes it far tougher for a Democrat to beat him. “There’s no doubt that if we’d known then what we know now, we might have gone more aggressively in California,” the Democratic lawyer said. Whatever Pombo’s fate, in 2000, both Democrats and Republicans contrived to ensure that even if there’s a 1994-style shift in public opinion this year, it almost certainly won’t translate into a 1994-style transformation in the House.

Quick on the draw

It was the outlandish saga in Texas that finally prompted some Democrats into rethinking their approach to redistricting. Texas had already produced its map for the decade, but in 2002 DeLay, sensing opportunity, had directed more than $3 million into state elections in a successful effort to put the legislature wholly in GOP control. (He was later indicted for money-laundering charges related to the donations). Next, the GOP set about reversing what remained of a skilful Democratic gerrymander from 10 years earlier. But even in the bare-knuckled world of redistricting, the GOP revision, which netted the party five more seats, seemed not just partisan, but vindictive.  It removed Frost’s district entirely (a fact that a GOP operative celebrated gleefully in an email). At one point, a lawyer for one GOP lawmaker described the plan in an email as “the most aggressive map I have ever seen,” adding, “This has a real national impact that should assure that Republicans keep the House no matter the national mood.”  

The viciousness of the Texas episode prompted many to hope that the Supreme Court would finally halt excessive gerrymandering. When it comes to electoral mapping, the court has never managed to define exactly what constitutes “too partisan,” but in an opinion upholding the GOP’s Pennsylvania map last year, Justice Anthony Kennedy had hinted that he wanted to try. This June, however, the court sanctioned the mid-decade timing of the Texas remapping and all of its districts but one, which was overturned on racial, not political, grounds. The convoluted decision contained almost no new legal arguments of significance, but it signaled to both parties that there was basically no gerrymander so partisan that the court couldn’t stomach it.  Joan Fitz-Gerald, the DLCC’s chair, said that when the Supreme Court reaffirmed almost the entire Texas plan, it “sent chills down people’s spines.”

Since then, a number of Democrats have argued that the party should play the game according to the rules that DeLay has created. Last year Reps. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) argued forcefully that Democrats should re-redistrict in Illinois, New Mexico, and Louisiana in retaliation for the Republican mid-decade redrawing in Texas, as well as for similar off-cycle remapping that occurred in Colorado and Georgia. Hoyer also met with state lawmakers in New York to discuss the possibility of reconfiguring its congressional maps should Democrats win the state Senate this year. Nothing came of these talks: New Mexico and Louisiana could only have yielded one extra seat each, and in both states local politicians quickly quashed the effort.  In Illinois, potentially a more worthwhile endeavor for Democrats, the state party pushed back, again reluctant to anger Hastert.  

Later that year, California Democrats also had a chance to revisit their map. The state GOP had kept its word and didn’t introduce a redistricting ballot initiative, but when Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor, he promoted an initiative to turn the process over to an independent commission. (For the most part, this appeared to be a genuine effort to revive California’s stagnated electoral process, and also to ensure the survival of moderate Republicans, an increasingly rare species in such a polarized landscape). It’s impossible to say for sure whether either party would have benefited from this plan. But because the last map concentrated Democrats far more densely than Republicans, a more competitive map might have increased the delegation.  “My bet is that if Schwarzenegger’s thing had passed it would have resulted in more seats for Democrats,” said the senior Democratic strategist. “[But] some of the people took great umbrage and decided the delegation should fight it—some thought they might be thrown together or placed in majority-minority districts.” The strategist added dryly: “Sometimes there is a conflict between individual incumbents, and maximizing the number of incumbents.” Led by minority leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), nearly all of California’s House lawmakers resisted the measure, raising $12 million to successfully defeat it.  

But Democrats have one potential advantage for future redistricting efforts. The McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law passed in 2002 now makes it illegal for the national parties to spend soft money on state campaigns. This means, according to Mark Braden, that the RNC, for many years the efficient operation driving the GOP’s redistricting success, is “basically out of the business.” For once, Democrats have a head-start with their new 527 organization, which was set up by the DLCC, AFSCME, the government employees union, and the National Committee for an Effective Congress, the main organization that provides technical redistricting support to Democratic state parties. (Republicans are considering forming a similar organization after the election). The foundation for the first time centralizes Democrats’ redistricting operations, and also addresses one of their long-standing problems: “It takes the task out of the hands of actual Democratic members of Congress, who have such a self-interest that they can’t plan for the whole,” said Angle.

The new world of redistricting ushered in by DeLay presents Democrats with some difficult choices. The party’s core of minority support means that it has to balance its partisan interests with the demands of the Voting Rights Act, a problem Republicans don’t face. And the question of whether to aggressively seek opportunities to remap mid-decade brings battlers like Emanuel into conflict with others who argue that Democrats should seize the moral high ground. There’s merit to the latter argument. For one, there are no Texas-sized opportunities for Democrats where they could gain more than two or three extra seats. More significantly, the GOP redrawing came with heavy costs: DeLay’s machinations may yet send him to jail, and soon after the Colorado mid-decade stunt was rejected by the state Supreme Court, the state’s voters handed the legislature to Democrats.  But although the issue of whether to redistrict mid-decade is a thorny one, planning now for 2011 seems like a simpler proposition. Jeff Wice, another redistricting attorney who for many years worked for the DNC, puts it this way: “It’s still being debated that if one party goes to excess, then the other party shouldn’t sit on its hands. There are winners and losers in redistricting—it’s a zero sum game.”

   

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Rachel Morris is an editor of The Washington Monthly.  
 
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