Redistricting Doesn’t Always Go as Planned

by Nathan L. Gonzales March 31, 2011 · 9:14 AM EDT

All the hard work of drawing a Congressional map can be ruined by a basket of chicken fingers.

Across the country, Republicans and Democrats are feverishly strategizing about how to draw Congressional districts that will benefit their parties for the next decade. But even though districts can be drawn to dramatically favor a particular party or even a specific person, candidates and campaigns still matter and sometimes races don’t turn out as they were planned.

Ten years ago, Democrats controlled the redistricting process in Georgia. Powerful state Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker (D) wanted to draw the 12th district to elect an African-American Democrat who just happened to be his son. Nobody dared to grab even a precinct and hurt Charles “Champ” Walker Jr.’s chances of getting elected.

But Champ became his own worst enemy.

“I met with him, and when he started going over his background I knew right then and there that it wasn’t going very far,” remembered Atlanta-based consultant Allan Crow, who had worked with the state Democratic caucus for years.

“I left the meeting in shock,” Crow continued, “and most of it came out later.”

Crow declined to join Walker’s team, but the Democrat’s campaign went on and it wasn’t long before Republicans found a treasure trove of opposition research from Walker’s early 20s, incidents the Savannah Morning News referred to in a 2002 story as “a few run-ins with the law.”

In the most prominent example, Walker had been arrested one decade earlier for disorderly conduct at an Applebee’s restaurant after a dispute with a waitress over some chicken fingers.

According to the paper, Walker also had been arrested less than a year later for shoplifting a $5.49 Slim Fast shaker at a Kroger’s grocery store. The paper reported Walker had wanted “a particular flavor of Slim Fast, whose shaker was absent from the box, so he took one from another flavor on the shelf.” He’d also been driving on a suspended license and had been previously arrested for leaving the scene of an accident, all charges that had been dropped but that weren’t public before his House bid.

Republicans used the arrests in a television ad, even though, as Walker told the newspaper, “I don’t even remember being arrested for that — it’s amazing to me.”

Walker was never convicted, but the political damage had been done. He lost the seat that was drawn for him by 8 points to little-known college professor Max Burns (R).

“It was drawn to be an African-American seat and a Democratic seat in that election. It was neither,” Crow told Roll Call recently. Two years later, in 2004, Democrats won the seat when Athens-Clarke County Commissioner John Barrow unseated Burns. But over a decade of elections, the district never elected a black candidate.

This time around, Republicans control the redistricting process in almost 20 states (including Georgia) and almost four times the number of Congressional districts where Democrats are in charge.

The key for both parties is to draw maps not based just on past election results but to understand future voting trends in order to control districts for the next 10 years. But map-makers can’t take every contingency into account.

A decade ago, like today, Florida stood to gain two districts. Republicans were in control of the redistricting process and, according to conventional wisdom, then-state Speaker Tom Feeney (R) and his redistricting chairman, Mario Diaz-Balart (R), drew districts that were favorable to them.

“Never denied it, because if I did, it wouldn’t do any good,” Feeney said with a laugh in a recent interview with Roll Call. “Everyone believes it now, so what good is it?” Feeney won the inaugural race in the newly created 24th district with almost 62 percent in 2002.

But even though Feeney was unopposed two years later and re-elected comfortably in 2006, he lost his seat in 2008 when a second Democratic wave developed and Democrats pounded him for a trip to Scotland he took with infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Republicans recaptured the seat in November when Sandy Adams defeated Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D).

Even though he’s out of office now, Feeney is a veteran of two redistricting cycles and knows what many of these map-making legislators are going through.

“Ambitions abound,” Feeney said, particularly in states like Florida where term limits force legislators to explore higher office. With so many aspiring Members of Congress and a limited number of districts, Feeney described the process of running for Congress in a redistricting year as “playing a game of musical chairs blindfolded” because the maps won’t be finalized until much later in the cycle.

A similar situation might play out this time in Nevada where three Democrats — former Rep. Dina Titus, state Speaker John Oceguera and state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford — appear to be interested in two districts anchored in the Clark County suburbs. There might be a seat for everyone if Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) runs for Senate.

Even though politics is an obvious part of the redistricting process, Feeney cautioned that knowing the rules and the Department of Justice guidelines should be the primary concern.

“The last thing you want is to work hard on a map and have it thrown out, or have a stalemate,” Feeney said.

That’s part of what happened in Colorado a decade ago. Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature couldn’t agree on a new map, so a district judge selected a map for them.

Even though Democrats weren’t in control of the redistricting process, the newly created 7th district was nicknamed the “Perlmutter District” after state Senate President Ed Perlmutter (D). The Jefferson County Democrat was viewed as the best candidate to run in the competitive district in the Denver suburbs.

“I was a very good friend of Ed’s,” former state Sen. Mike Feeley (D) said in a recent phone interview from his Denver office. “I was getting ready to help his campaign.”

But soon after the new map was released, Perlmutter announced he would forgo a Congressional bid for family reasons, leaving Democrats without a candidate.

Instead of an anointed nominee, Democrats had a competitive primary between Feeley, who admits he “never had any burning desire to be in Congress,” and Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas.

Feeley won the primary but lost to former Republican Party Chairman Bob Beauprez in an extremely close race that wasn’t officially decided until five weeks after Election Day.

Four years later, Beauprez ran for governor and Perlmutter decided to run for the open Congressional seat. He won the 2006 race by more a dozen points and hasn’t had a close race since.

“In the long run, it turned out he was the right guy,” Feeley joked. It just took four years longer than everyone expected.