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Drawing political battle lines

Legislative control depends on a few district boundaries

Salem politicos call election time 'the silly season' because of all the outrageous charges that candidates fling in campaigns.

Maybe they should call redistricting the 'season for political hanky panky.'

Control of the Oregon Legislature typically rests on a dozen or so races in evenly divided House and Senate districts - the bulk of them in and around Portland suburbs. And there's no better chance for political parties to seek the upper hand in those swing districts than when the boundaries are redrawn every 10 years after the Census.

'People will fight intensely over it, and they will posture over it,' says Portlander Phil Keisling. 'There's so much hall of mirrors and spin.'

Keisling ought to know. Twenty years ago, he was the Democratic secretary of state charged with redrawing those boundaries after the Legislature failed to pass a plan.

Ten years ago, Republican lawmakers in control of the Legislature used a procedural gimmick - redrawing district lines via a resolution instead of a bill - to avoid having their plan vetoed by Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber. Not to be outfoxed, House Democrats staged a one-week walkout, halting all business in their chamber to thwart the GOP resolution.

'Both could justifiably be criticized for being partisan,' says Janice Thompson, executive director of the electoral reform group Common Cause of Oregon. 'This is an intensely political process and no one should be surprised.'

The redistricting process is heating up again, following release of the 2010 Census results.

During recent hearings across the state on redistricting, observers say many citizens who testified offered versions of talking points that were clearly prepared by Democratic and Republican political operatives, just as in prior redistricting cycles.

Leaders of the evenly divided House and Democrat-controlled Senate say they hope to draw new district lines that will win bipartisan support. But no one's willing to bet on it.

'Republicans have zero leverage,' says rookie state Rep. Shawn Lindsay, R-Hillsboro, co-chairman of the House redistricting committee. If the two chambers can't agree on a plan or get Gov. Kitzhaber to sign it, the task falls to Secretary of State Kate Brown, a Democrat.

When Brown won that office in 2008, both parties knew the big prize was getting to redraw political boundaries.

What Census tells us

In the past decade, there's been blistering population growth in Happy Valley, Sherwood, Wilsonville, Hillsboro and King City, and heady growth in Beaverton, Gresham, Oregon City and Tigard. Portland has grown too, but more slowly than the state average. Lake Oswego grew minimally, and Milwaukie lost some population.

Like a multiheaded balloon animal shaped by a circus clown, district boundaries must now be shifted to equalize their population. Balloons must shrink in fast-growing districts and bulge in slower-growing ones.

Because Washington County grew faster than Multnomah and Clackamas counties, it should get more political clout with the redrawing of lines, says Jim Moore, political scientist at Pacific University in Forest Grove. But that ultimately depends on the new boundaries and where the winners reside.

Republicans say the boundaries written by Democratic Secretary of State Bill Bradbury a decade ago were slanted toward Democrats. Like a wheel, spokes of heavily Democratic Portland were included in more legislative and congressional districts than was warranted by population numbers, Lindsay says.

He'd like to see the congressional lines redrawn so Multnomah County is confined to one district, not, as now, spreading its liberal tentacles into three of Oregon's five districts.

Republicans also want state legislative districts to be drawn more compactly, so Portland pockets aren't blended so much with suburban communities. Districts should be drawn like 'Rubik's cubes' rather than 'Picasso' paintings, Lindsay says. The end result, he says, would be more competitive elections next year.

Legal requirements

But the law requires keeping 'communities of interest' together, protecting minority voters, and keeping transportation corridors together, Bradbury says. The law doesn't give as much credence to county lines, or allow lines to be drawn to benefit one party or to assure that a sitting lawmaker lives within the new boundary.

Bradbury says he was unaware his 2001 redistricting plan left Republican Sen. Jason Atkinson living just outside the new lines of his Southern Oregon district.

'I went 'Oh, that's nuts,' but that's kind of what happens,' Bradbury says. Atkinson wound up moving so he could seek re-election.

Bradbury says he kept Wilsonville intact, though it spreads across multiple counties.

Bradbury was oft-criticized for his new boundaries for House District 33, which stretches from the unincorporated areas north of Beaverton to Northwest Portland. But he counters that it is more appropriate to think of Portland-area districts in the context of a metro area, and he says those residents have much in common because they are linked by transportation arteries that are more significant than city lines.

When the 2011 redistricting is finished, many doubt the lines will dramatically shift. It's much easier logistically, and easier to pass muster in the courts, to adapt existing boundaries, rather than start from scratch, as Republicans urge.

Moore doubts this year's redistricting will have as much impact as in the past, given the increasingly Democrat voter registration in Washington and Clackamas counties. And districts can change in just five or six years because of rapid population shifts, Moore says. 'The best political advantage you can get is a one- or two-election cycle advantage, and then things shift.'

Keisling says the growth in unaffiliated voters, who swing from one party to the other, renders the political gains from redistricting less potent.

'It matters so much less today than it ever did,' he says.

- Steve Law