Redistricting hangs in the balance

By Gary Wilhelms,

Redistricting is the single most partisan political project our Legislature faces every ten years. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, legislators are politicians, and they are partisan. We now have legislative district boundaries in Oregon drawn in a most partisan way by Oregon’s former Secretary of State Bill Bradbury. Governor Kitzhaber made sure of that with his veto. The Legislature did its job and passed plans for both legislative and congressional redistricting. Legislators and staff worked for months putting together plans that accurately reflected the demographics and population growth of the state. The plans were responsive to public testimony and met the requirements of the Oregon Constitution and Oregon State Law.

It became apparent early in the 2001 session that the Democrats’ strategy was to take full advantage of the Constitutional provisions that allowed them to force the redistricting project into their Democrat Secretary of State’s office as opposed to negotiating a legislative compromise. Because the Democrats knew they could count on their Governor’s veto over any plan with which they disagreed, they had no reason to work objectively with the Republicans in the Legislature — and they didn’t. The Democrats stuck to their strategy and were successful in achieving their partisan objectives. Politically, the Democrats did a masterful job. With both Houses of the Legislature controlled by Republicans, the Democrats won, and that victory has given control of the Legislature to the Democrats.

To be fair to the Democrats, Republicans would likely have taken the same action had the roles been reversed. And that’s the problem with the current system. Bipartisanship and redistricting appear to be incompatible.

In 2005-2006, it was my honor to serve as Co-Chair of the Public Commission on the Oregon Legislature. The Commission recognized the extreme partisanship of our current redistricting system and recommended establishment of a redistricting commission to carry out the task. It makes good sense, but, alas, it’s not happening yet. I’m getting impatient (and older), but I will wait and remain optimistic. Some day, Oregonians will do what’s right and pass this needed change, thus preventing such blatant, irresponsible partisanship by either major party from occurring in the future.