GOP Legislative Redistricting Plan for Wisconsin Comes Under Fire
Democrats say Republicans are rushing through new legislative boundaries in part because of upcoming recall elections.
The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature is expected to vote this week on proposed legislative boundaries that dramatically redraw districts throughout the state and could ensure that the GOP retains control of the Assembly and Senate for the next decade and beyond.
The boundaries for the 132 legislative districts were unveiled by Republicans on July 8; they're likely to be approved by both chambers less than two weeks later and will then head to Republican Gov. Scott Walker for his signature.
State Democrats are fuming over the pace with which the plan is heading toward approval.
"The Republican proposal is highly partisan, intentionally drawn not with Wisconsin's best interest in mind but rather their own special interests in mind," said state Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison). "Redistricting isn't something to be rushed through the Legislature without adequate public input. Each and every day, we discover details that Republicans overlooked in their haste to rush this bill to Walker's desk."
Were recalls a factor?
Democrats say it's no coincidence that Republicans are trying to get new boundaries approved before the upcoming recall elections are held in nine state Senate districts.
Six Republican and three Democratic incumbent senators are on the recall ballot in August. If Democrats can pick up a net three seats, they would win control of the Senate.
Approving the GOP plan for legislative boundaries before those recall elections, however, would give Republicans a strong chance to regain control of the Senate in the 2012 elections.
The best example of how that scenario could play out is in the 8th Senate District, a seat now held by Republican Alberta Darling.
Under the Republican plan, the Village of Shorewood, which typically votes Democratic, would no longer be part of the 8th District. Instead, it would be lumped in with Milwaukee and the 4th Senate District, now represented by Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee).
Without Shorewood, the 8th District would see a more suburban, more conservative constituency, stretching north into Grafton and as far west as the town of Erin in Washington County.
Currently, the district's western edge includes only parts of Menomonee Falls and Richfield.
8th District would be a safe GOP seat
The new boundaries should ensure an easy re-election for Darling in 2012 and beyond. And even if Darling were to be defeated by Democrat Sandy Pasch in an Aug. 9 recall election, Pasch would face an uphill re-election battle in the revamped district.
Last week, Pasch and five other Democrats who are running against Republican senators in primaries each faced a "fake Democrat" — a candidate put up by Republicans to force a primary. That move delayed the general recall election from July to August.
While Republican party officials have said they fielded the fake Democrats to give incumbent GOP senators more time to campaign, Pasch doesn't think that's the case.
She believes the delay was designed to give Republicans the time they need to push through the redrawn legislative map.
“It became quite clear why they would want to delay the general election — so they would have time to railroad this through,” Pasch said. “The fact that they are doing this in such an incredibly partisan way, without public input or deliberation, should not only be concerning to me but to people across the state.
"The thing I hear when I'm out talking to people is they want the parties to work together, to compromise. They don’t want this incredible divisiveness."
The redistricting would also make it more difficult for Pasch to win her Assembly seat if she fails in the recall election. She would be in a seat currently held by Republican Jim Ott of Mequon, and the new district would include an area that has traditionally voted Republican.
Republicans defend redistricting
The new boundaries were released by Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon) and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), who have said little about the new maps or the Democrats' complaints.
“Republicans have been keeping our promises and getting the job done since Day One," the leaders said in a joint statement when the maps were released. "We started with jobs bills to improve the economy; we balanced the budget on time and turned a deficit into a surplus; and now we’re fulfilling our constitutional requirement to properly reapportion the state’s legislative and congressional districts.”
Even though Darling was not involved in redistricting, her spokesman said the change in boundaries in the 8th District — west and north, and away from Shorewood — is based on shifting populations in the state. He said the population is moving away from Milwaukee, and increasing in Dane County and western Wisconsin.
"A lot of those changes are due to population shifts," spokesman Bob Delaporte said. "Wherever the lines end up, (Darling) will look forward to representing those areas, and she’s going to do the best job possible."
The plan also gives a Republican tilt to Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa). Her district would be pulled west, away from West Milwaukee and West Allis, and deeper into Brookfield and parts of New Berlin into the area currently represented by Sen. Rich Zipperer (R-Brookfield). Vukmir did not return phone calls seeking comment on the redistricting plan.
Not all Republicans will have it easy
While Democrats say the redistricting plan is a power grab by Republicans to secure their seats for the next decade, state Rep. Dan Knodl (R-Germantown) said he is taking a hit in representation with redrawn borders. Knodl would lose half of Menomonee Falls as his district expands east into River Hills.
“The Republicans having control of everything doesn’t mean we all benefit. I’ll be going from a 75 percent Republican district to about 60 percent using current election numbers,” Knodl said. “I’m taking a significant hit, but that’s part of it when you have to account for the changing population bases.”
Local officials unhappy
The plan has also drawn opposition from local governments, as the new legislative districts currently cut across existing ward lines.
Milwaukee recently completed its five-month redistricting process, and passage of the GOP redistricting plan would cost the city $10,000 to make retroactive changes mandated after the process, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barret said in a letter to state senators.
Barrett said the lines drawn by GOP leaders would split 17 percent of Milwaukee’s 55 wards.
"By excluding local governments and ignoring natural boundaries and local factors that bind communities of interest, you have arrogantly mandated artificial ward lines without regard to local concerns," Barrett wrote. "You have intentionally done this in order to gain extreme partisan advantage at the expense of equal and fair representation."
The mayor said that current state law requires local governments to have a "strong voice" in redistricting.
The GOP plan also is opposed by the Intergovernmental Cooperation Council, a consortium of Milwaukee area municipal leaders.
Barrett said voters in up to six Milwaukee County Assembly seats will significantly lose their influence in choosing who represents them to voters outside of the county.
"For the largest county in Wisconsin and, the economic engine for the entire state, that is a significant loss of representation," he said.
Could Democrats challenge plan in court?
Frederick P. Kessler, a Milwaukee Democrat representing the 12th Assembly District and national expert on redistricting, noted that Wisconsin's last three redistricting plans were decided by the federal courts.
Kessler said the Democrats will likely challenge the current GOP proposal, but usually court challenges are the result of different parties controlling one chamber of a Legislature or the governor's office.
"Generally, a court challenge does not occur when one party controls all three legs of the stool — as the Republicans do here," Kessler said.
The federal Voting Rights Act, which bars redistricting in a way that would dilute the the influence of a minority group in a district, could influence the decision, he said. The other factor is that the districts must be roughly equal in population. If they are not, they can be challenged.
In the 12th Assembly District, two wards — one of them the ward where Kessler lives — were redrawn into another district.
"My district went from being 75 percent Democrat to 65 percent Republican," he said. "My chances of winning re-election are slim. My wife and I have discussed it, and we will move."
He said that many parts of the western section of Milwaukee are now a part of district that includes the far more Republican-voting Waukesha County. Dane County has also been divvied up in a way that dilutes the influence of the City of Madison in a similar way to that of the City of Milwaukee.
Patch Editor Carl Engelking contributed to this report.