Redistricting: House reaches deal, while Senate talks continue

Negotiators for Democrats and Republicans have agreed on a new legislative map for the 151 state House districts, while their state Senate counterparts worked late Monday night in hopes of beating a constitutional deadline of Wednesday.

A bigger challenge appears to be new congressional districts. While these need relatively minor modifications to balance their populations to reflect the 2010 census, the GOP negotiators say they intend to demand significant changes to the 5th District, an open seat being sought by nine candidates.

"It should make more sense geographically -- more sense than it is," said Rep. Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, the House minority leader and co-chairman of the bipartisan redistricting commission.

CD Map

Congressional map negotiated in 2001.

The 5th District of western Connecticut is an odd-shaped district negotiated 10 years ago as a political settlement that placed two incumbents in the district when Connecticut shrank from six U.S. House districts to five.

"We agree with Rep. Cafero that the congressional map is something that should be changed to get rid of the all the different jogs it has to accommodate prior years," said Sen. Leonard Fasano, R-North Haven, a commission member.

But their first effort at changing the 5th would require a wholesale remake of the 3rd and 4th. (UPDATE: Sen. Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, the Senate leader and co-chairman of the redistricting commission, said Tuesday that map was an attempt produce a solidly GOP 4th District.)

Regarding the 151 state House districts, Cafero said the state House negotiators finalized a deal Monday that had been reached in concept on Friday.

"You do things section by section. You have to make sure it all works. We did that today," Cafero said Monday evening. "The Senate, I understand, is close, whatever that means."

Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, one of two Democratic senators negotiating the map of the 36 state Senate districts, said the Democrats and Republicans still were trading information.

"We're still here. We're ready to be here for the duration," Looney said.

But Fasano said at 9:40 p.m. it was unclear if the senators would reach agreement Monday night. After a long day of talks Sunday, they had resumed talks Monday at 9 a.m.

If a deal is reached in both chambers of the General Assembly, the eight legislators on the redistricting commission would then quickly shift gears to settle on new boundaries for the state's five U.S. House districts, with a focus on the 5th.

"We've each traded maps on Congress. The hope is if the Senate wraps up tonight, we can have two full days to discuss Congress," Cafero said.

But Cafero did not rule out leaving the congressional map for the courts, the next step if the commission fails to approve a redistricting plan Wednesday. With all five U.S. House seats now held by Democrats, the GOP sees little downside in the courts drawing new congressional districts.

"If you look at the map, it looks like a joke," Cafero said.

Connecticut had three Democrats and three Republicans in the U.S. House 10 years ago, when the state lost one seat. The new map put two incumbents, Democrat Jim Maloney of the 5th and Republican Nancy Johnson of the 6th into the new 5th District.

The gerrymandered district -- the 5th now resembles a claw reaching into the 1st -- was drawn to balance the bases of the two incumbents. Johnson won in 2002 and was re-elected in 2004, then lost to Democrat Chris Murphy in 2006.

"That was a political accommodation or negotiation," Cafero said. "Presumably they each had a fair shot. Nancy Johnson, it worked for her for two cycles. It's worked for the Democrats for three."

With Murphy now running for the U.S. Senate seat that will be open with the retirement of Joseph I. Lieberman, the 5th is seen as the state's biggest congressional battleground next year. With five candidates living in border towns, the new map conceivably could narrow the field.

The five candidates live in communities on the border of two or even three districts: Cheshire, Farmington, Meriden, Plainville and Simsbury. House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, is a commission member and one of four candidates for the Democratic nomination in the 5th. He could not be reached Monday.

One of his Republican opponents, Mark Greenberg, has made Donovan's presence on the commission an issue, calling it a conflict of interest. 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.

Ironically, the 5th as currently drawn is the district closest to the ideal population. According to the 2010 census, each congressional district should have a population of 714,819, 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.

Cafero, who has defended Donovan's presence on the panel, said he think a court would draw a district that makes more sense geographically, if the lawmakers cannot agree by end of the day Wednesday. A court would have 45 days to produce its own plan.

The legislature's eight-person redistricting committee was reconstituted as a nine-member commission after it failed to meet its first deadline in September. But the ninth member, former Democratic auditor Kevin Johnston, has not been part of the talks.

The four House members, evenly divided among Democrats and Republicans, and the four Senate members, also evenly balanced, have operated as separate panels, each focused on districts for their own chambers.