Open seat makes 5th District the one to watch in redistricting

With four public hearings in three days, the legislature’s Reapportionment Committee this week finishes its first round of information gathering to be used in drawing five congressional and 187 state legislative districts to reflect the 2010 census. Then the fun begins.

Drawing new districts in Connecticut is an exercise in computer-assisted puzzle making and old-fashioned horse-trading by a precisely balanced committee of four Democrats and four Republicans, with equal numbers from the state House and Senate.

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Based on maps drawn over the next two months, opportunities could open for some politicians and close for others.

In the crowded race for the open seat in the 5th Congressional District, for example, five candidates live in communities on the border of two or even three districts: Cheshire, Farmington, Meriden, Plainville and Simsbury.

“The odds of Meriden being in the 5th are pretty goddamned good,” said Richard Foley, a former state legislator and state GOP chairman who was co-chairman of the 1990 Reapportionment Committee. “That’s just a guess.”

It’s more than a guess. Meriden is home to House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, a candidate for Congress in the 5th and, as Foley is well aware, one of the four Democrats on this year’s Reapportionment Committee.

Others may not be so lucky.

One of Donovan’s competitors for the Democratic nomination, former Rep. Elizabeth Esty, lives in Cheshire on the border with the 3rd District. Republicans Mike Clark of Farmington, Justin Bernier of Plainville and Lisa Wilson-Foley of Simsbury are on the border of the 1st District.

Ten years ago, population shifts left Connecticut with five congressional districts, down from six. Of the state’s five surviving congressional districts, the 5th is the one that cries out for an overhaul. Its borders were manipulated 10 years to give two incumbents, Democrat James Maloney and Republican Nancy Johnson, a relatively even shot at victory.

The result was a district that looks like a misshapen claw reaching east from a block of communities running north from Danbury along the New York state line to Massachusetts. It may be a gerrymander, but the irony is that the 5th needs the least tinkering on the basis of population.

According to the 2010 census, each congressional district should have a population of 714,819 this year, up from 681,113 a decade ago. The 5th has 714,296.

With 729,771 people, only the 2nd District of eastern Connecticut needs to shrink. Population for the other districts: 1st, 710,951; 3rd, 712,339; and 4th, 706,740.

Donovan and other members of the committee say it is too early to talk about whether the 5th is in line for a significant remaking. The panel has held hearings in the 2nd and 5th. It has a hearing tonight in Norwalk in the 4th District, then Tuesday in New Haven in the 3rd District and two hearings in Hartford on Wednesday.

The Democratic committee members are Donovan, Rep. Sandy Nafis of Newington, Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney of New Haven and Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams Jr. of Brooklyn.

The Republicans are House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. of Norwalk, Rep. Arthur O’Neill of Southbury, Senate Minority Leader John McKinney of Fairfield, and Sen. Leonard Fasano of North Haven.

The committee has until Sept. 15 to produce three maps: state House districts, state Senate districts, and congressional districts.

“We haven’t engaged in any specific deliberations yet,” Looney said.

And that includes Donovan’s potential interest in the outlines of the 5th District.

“I’ve always known Chris Donovan to be very even-handed in his approach to things,” Looney said. “I think he’s aware there is going to be a particular spotlight on him given his position and the position he aspires to.”

Donovan noted he has just one of eight votes, and his place on the committee is due to his leadership post.

“It’s appropriate for me to be there,” Donovan said. As for any special spotlight on him, he said, “People can speculate all the time about things.”

He and Nafis will be negotiating state House districts with Cafero and O’Neill. Looney and Williams will be negotiating Senate districts with McKinney and Fasano.

Together, the eight members will try to agree on congressional districts. If they cannot, a ninth member will be appointed by the eight. If that fails, the courts step in.

Cafero said only O’Neill has previous experience redistricting, so the rest of the panel is still learning. Attendance was light at the first two hearings.

In Waterbury, the panel was urged to consider drawing a state Senate district that includes the southern half of Hartford and a portion of East Hartford to create a Latino majority district.

Creating districts that give minorities a voice is one of many criteria established by court cases. Other goals are trying to minimize dividing communities among legislative and congressional districts.

Durham, Glastonbury, Middletown, Shelton, Torrington and Waterbury are the only six communities in more than one congressional district. Middletown stands at a congressional crossroads, where the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th districts meet.

Once an important part of the 2nd, Middletown was pushed into the 1st and 3rd a decade ago after the election of a Republican, Rob Simmons in the 2nd.

“Clearly, it was a Republican goal in 2001 to switch Middletown for Enfield in the 2nd District in the second district. Part of that was Simmons,” said Foley, who described Simmons as more comfortable with the Democratic World War II veterans of Enfield than the Wesleyan community in Middletown.

Incumbents cannot dictate their districts, but their wishes are part of the mix, Foley said.

The hearings are: tonight at 7 p.m. in City Hall, 125 East Avenue, Norwalk; 7 p.m. Tuesday at Fair Haven Middle School, 164 Grand Ave., New Haven; and 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.