The General Assembly’s bipartisan redistricting commission unanimously approved new districts Wednesday for the state House and Senate ahead of a midnight deadline, leaving an unfinished congressional map in the hands of the Connecticut Supreme Court.
Attorney General George Jepsen will ask the court to grant the commission an extension to continue negotiations on congressional districts, the major piece of unfinished business. A second potential legal complication: a Latino group is threatening to challenge the state Senate districts.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, a commission member and a candidate for Congress, immediately announced his resignation from the panel, ceding his seat to House Majority Leader J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden.
With the state House map approved, Donovan said he will withdraw to end complaints that his presence on the commission was a conflict of interest.
“My goal is to get the maps done. I want to avoid politics and encourage a bipartisan process,” Donovan said.
Donovan, one of four Democrats and five Republicans running for the open seat in the 5th Congressional District, has faced weeks of criticism for his role on the panel from Mark Greenberg, one of the GOP candidates.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said Donovan’s resignation will remove a distraction from the process.
Both the Democratic and Republican congressional maps were drawn to leave all nine candidates — five of whom live in border towns — in the 5th district.
Greenberg said Donovan’s departure was overdue.
“I am pleased that Chris Donovan has finally recognized what the rest of Connecticut has known for months: that Donovan’s participation on the commission that is re-drawing the boundaries of Connecticut’s congressional districts, including the 5th where he is a declared candidate, is a blatant and egregious conflict of interest,” he said.
Mike Clark, another GOP candidate, also was quick to attack Donovan: “With his resignation from the commission today, we must ask, ‘What took him so long to see such a gross conflict?’ This certainly proves Donovan’s poor judgment.”
Greenberg said the map should be drawn by the court, saying that replacing Donovan with Sharkey changes little, since Sharkey is an ally. But if the courts gives the commission more time, no map can be approved without the consent of the GOP.
The GOP map would place Bridgeport into the 3rd District with New Haven, creating a district that Republicans say would be “minority influenced,” the term for districts in which minority voters are sufficiently numerous to potentially be a pivotal voting bloc. The district would be 19 percent black and 19 percent Hispanic, similar to the 1st District of Greater Hartford.
But the shift also would rob U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, of Bridgeport’s Democratic voters, jeopardizing his re-election.
The release of the state House map — the Senate districts were completed so close to the deadline that the map was not be available online until Thursday morning — prompted a rush to assess winners and losers.
One obvious winner: the Hartford suburb of Windsor, whose voters will dominate a House district for the first time in 30 years. It will come at a cost to Hartford and, more specifically, Rep. Marie Kirkley-Bey, D-Hartford, who was redistricted out of her 5th Assembly District.
“This is huge,” said Leo Canty, the Democratic chairman in Windsor. “The new plan brings back the rightful and just district that Windsor lost because of nasty political payback back in 1981.”
Windsor leaders were lining up in 1981 behind House Speaker Ernest Abate, who made an ill-fated challenge of Gov. William A. O’Neill. When Abate failed to place himself on the redistricting panel, Windsor was unprotected, Canty said.
The redrawn 5th Assembly District will spill from Northeast Hartford into Windsor. It will have 13,537 voters in Windsor and 9,463 in Hartford. As is the case now, it will remain a district dominated by African-American voters, meaning it is not expected to reduce black representation in the General Assembly.
The 5th is one of seven Assembly Districts with a population that will be at least 50 percent black. Another eight are at least 30 percent black.
Kirkley-Bey is expected to retire after 20 years in the House. Should she seek another term, she will have to compete against Rep. Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, in the 1st Assembly District.
The new map also appeared to presage the retirements of Rep. Richard Roy, D-Milford, and Rep. Gail Hamm, D-East Hampton, whose districts were drastically redrawn. Roy, who also was elected 20 years ago, now finds himself in the 117th Assembly District, the same district as Rep. Paul Davis, D-Orange.
Roy’s old district, the 119th, becomes an open seat that appears to favor a Republican candidate.
The House map was praised by a Latino group that has closely followed redistricting, urging the commission to draw a Senate map that would create a district dominated by Latino voters, giving the Senate a better chance at seeing its first Hispanic member.
“I think the House did a fantastic job,” said Americo Santiago, a former legislator involved with the Latino redistricting group.
Even with urban populations generally growing at a slower rate than suburban and rural communities, the House map managed to largely keep intact districts now represented by Latinos. In Hartford, three of the five surviving House districts are drawn to favor a Latino candidate. Statewide, the population of 21 House districts are at least 30 percent Latino, with 7 being at least 50 percent Hispanic.
But Santiago said the group is likely to consider a legal challenge over the failure by the Senate to create a Latino district. The Senate did not provide a racial breakdown of its districts.
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.
A congressional compromise is expected to be more difficult, especially if the GOP insists on a map that tilts the 4th and the 5th toward Republicans. The court will have to decide if the parties are reasonably assured of reaching an agreement.
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 those concerns now appear well-founded.
Republicans say their congressional map eliminates the gerrymander created in 2001 to accommodate two incumbents, Democrat James Maloney and Republican Nancy Johnson, who were placed in the 5th Congressional District after Connecticut lost one of its six U.S. House seats.
The Democrats have proposed minimal changes that adjust the districts to give them equal populations.
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 worked as two separate groups, with House Democrats and Republicans crafting a House map, while Senate Democrats and Republicans handled work on a Senate map.
The four House members — 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 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 Wednesday.
The agreement surprised the House members, who had heard that the senators were far apart. Williams today acknowledged that the talks were heated.
Williams and the Republican leaders, after congratulating each other on resolving the state legislative districts, immediately exchanged barbs about the congressional differences.
Technically, the deadlock on the bipartisan panel could have been resolved 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 was Kevin Johnston, the former Democratic state auditor.
From the outside, it appeared to be a simple matter to resolve the congressional districts. Johnston simply had to pick either the Democratic map or the Republican version.
But Williams, co-chairman of the commission, said the eight legislators 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.