Facing a midnight deadline, the bipartisan redistricting commission is set today to approve new districts for the state House and Senate, but the panel will ask the state Supreme Court for more time to draw a congressional map.
Democratic and Republican negotiators tentatively agreed late Tuesday night on new lines for 36 Senate districts, while the 151 House districts have been set for days.
But the two parties were not close at midday on a congressional map, with Republicans seeking major changes that would transform the 4th District into a GOP stronghold and improve the party’s chances in the 5th.
Ten years ago, the commission members convinced the Supreme Court to grant an extension, but its members could tell the court in good faith that substantial progress was being made.
In 2001, the state had a six-member U.S. House delegation, evenly split between Democrats and Republicans united on one point: no one wanted to risk leaving a new congressional map to an unpredictable court.
Today, that is not the case.
All five seats — slow population growth cost a seat in 2001 — are now held by Democrats, meaning there is little downside for the GOP to roll the dice by giving the Supreme Court a shot at drawing new congressional districts.
“There was some concern on our part whether the Republicans had incentive to bargain on the congressional districts. They don’t have any skin in the game,” said Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, one of two Democratic state senators on the commission.
Looney said today those concerns appear well-founded.
The realities of redistricting are that the congressional maps take a back seat to the state legislative districts. The reason is simple enough: the maps are negotiated by eight state legislators, evenly divided by party and legislative chamber.
The panel works as two separate groups, with House Democrats and Republicans crafting a House map, while Senate Democrats and Republicans handle work on a Senate map.
The four House members — House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden; Rep. Sandy Nafis, D-Newington; House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, R-Norwalk; and Rep. Arthur O’Neill, R-Southbury — signed off Monday on a map resolved last week.
The four Senate members — Looney; Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams, D-Brooklyn; Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield; and Sen. Leonard Fasano, R-North Haven — had a harder time.
“We came to an agreement last night a little before midnight,” Looney said today.
“We will be voting on a map at 4 o’clock,” Fasano said. “We have talked about every district, and I think we have reached a meeting of the minds.”
Fasano said both sides need a break before opening negotiations on the congressional map. Each party has produced a version.
Technically, the deadlock on the bipartisan panel could be resolved matter without court intervention. When the group failed to produce new maps by Sept. 15, it was required under the state Constitution to add a ninth member, ostensibly giving them a tie-breaker. The ninth member is Kevin Johnston, the former Democratic state auditor.
From the outside, it appears to be a simple matter to resolve the congressional districts. Johnston simply has to pick either the Democratic map or the Republican version.
But Williams, co-chairman of the commission, said the eight legislators are committed to following decades of precedent and practice: They will negotiate a balanced map, or let a court decide for the first time.
The threat of court intervention always has been sufficient to force the legislators to reach a compromise.
Democrats say they gave Republicans a map two weeks ago that did little or nothing to shift political power. It was a map that made the minimal changes necessary to balance the districts to reflect population changes.
“Our view is the changes to the congressional map can be accomplished in a modest way. Joe Courtney’s [2nd] district had to lose 15,000 people, while the others had to gain,” Looney said. Every district must have about 714,000 people.
But the Republicans responded Monday with dramatic changes that would transform the 4th District into a GOP stronghold and improve the party’s chances in the 5th District.
Under the Republican map, the Democratic city of Bridgeport would shift from the 4th to the 3rd, which now is dominated by New Haven. Without Bridgeport, the district would be unwinnable by a Democrat, Looney said.
Looney offered a wry reaction to GOP map: “I think they thought we might not notice that 144,000 people from Bridgeport were missing from the 4th, but we noticed right away.”
The GOP says political fairness dictates new maps that give the minority party a better shot at winning a seat. Under the GOP plan, the 1st and 3rd would remain safely Democratic, the 4th would be Republican and the other two would be competitive.
McKinney said the Democratic map is balanced by population, but the GOP version makes other improvements: eliminating a gerrymander in the 5th and creating a 3rd District in which racial minorities could more easily compete.
The gerrymander is the result of the state’s losing a seat in 2001, which placed two incumbents in the 5th. The focus in 2001 was drawing a 5th District that would offer a fair fight for the incumbents, Democrat James Maloney and Republican Nancy Johnson.
The result was an oddly drawn 5th District that reached deeply into the 1st like a claw, keeping Republican Hartford suburbs coveted by Johnson, while Maloney made sure they were offset by Democratic New Britain and Meriden.
But Democrats respond that the Republicans already are competitive in three of the five districts, a reasonable state of affairs for the GOP in what everyone acknowledges in a blue state.
It is hard for Republicans to argue that their present political woes in Connecticut are primarily to blame on the congressional map negotiated in 2001.
That map produced a congressional delegation in 2002 and 2004 in which the GOP held a 3-2 advantage. Things shifted in 2006, when Courtney and Chris Murphy unseated two Republican incumbents, Rob Simmons in the 2nd and Nancy Johnson in the 5th.
Democrat Jim Himes completed the sweep in 2008, unseating Republican Chris Shays in the 4th.
So, is the current map hopeless for the GOP?
Based on other election results, it would seem not.
Tom Foley, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, outpolled Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the Democratic victor, in the 2nd, 4th and 5th districts.
Other factors make the 2nd and, arguably, the 4th safe for Courtney and Himes next year, most notably the powers of incumbency, the lack of strong GOP challengers and the heavy Democratic turnout expected in a presidential year.
But the 5th is an open seat as Murphy is taking a run at the open Senate seat left by Joseph I. Lieberman’s planned retirement.
If the Supreme Court rejects the request for more time to draw a congressional map, it is uncertain how the court would proceed.
A special master could be named to draw a new map, or the court could invite submissions from the two major parties and other interested groups.
“That’s all uncharted at this point,” Looney said. “I suppose the court could take information from anyone they wanted.”