Time is running short on redistricting negotiations

The sessions are private, not listed on any public schedule. But the eight legislators responsible for drawing new congressional and state legislative district maps are meeting nearly daily, racing to meet a Nov. 30 deadline.

“If we don’t, it’s not for lack of trying, I’ll tell you that,” said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, co-chairman of the bipartisan panel. “We’re meeting quite often. Our staffs are meeting almost on a daily and hourly basis.”


Before the doors closed: Democrats Martin Looney, Donald Williams and Republicans Leonard Fasano, John McKinney.

The courts have the authority to take over redistricting if the Reapportionment Commission fails over the next two weeks to finish the once-a-decade task of drawing new districts to reflect population changes.

The exercise is one protracted negotiation, conducted in private.  No proposed maps are public, and the last public hearing was held in July.

On Monday, two Democratic and two Republican senators met in the GOP caucus room off the Senate floor to exchange each party’s latest maps. A sign on the wall admonished, “Play Nice.” The quartet met Friday, when the Capitol was closed in honor of Veterans Day.

“I think we’re going to reach a deal. I think we’re going to get there,” said Sen. Leonard Fasano, R-North Haven. “It’s tough to bang out. It’s just a puzzle. You move one piece, everything is off.”

The panel is evenly divided: two House Democrats and two House Republicans, and two Senate Democrats and two Senate Republicans. They already have missed one deadline.

When the eight-member Reapportionment Committee failed to finish by Sept. 15, the panel was reconstituted as a Reapportionment Commission with the addition of a ninth tie-breaking member, former state auditor Kevin Johnston.

But the group still functions as it did before the deadline: the four House members meet privately trying to hash out 151 state House districts, while the four Senators negotiate 36 state Senate districts.

Both groups are expected to meet Wednesday.

Work on the five U.S. House districts is largely on hold, according to most commission members. The other co-chairman, Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams, D-Brooklyn, says some initial congressional work has been done.

Ten years ago, the congressional map was the biggest political challenge.

With the state’s population growing slower than the national average, it was faced with losing one of its six congressional seats, which were held by three Democrats and three Republicans.

Today, the five congressional seats all are held by Democrats, and the necessary revisions are minor. To balance the districts so each have 714,000 people, the 2nd District must lose about 15,000 people. The others have to gain.

“Informally, we’ve had conversations with each of them,” Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said of the congressmen. “They said they were going to have discussions among themselves. We expect there will be more give and take on that.”

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said there has been little give and take among the five. The necessary adjustments are seen as minor, nothing like the drama caused in 2001 by putting two incumbents in one district, he said.

“The discussion has been pretty light,” Courtney said. “It’s nothing like 10 years ago.”

The delegation has not proposed its own map, he said.

One of the commission members, House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, is a candidate for the open seat in the 5th District, where four of the nine candidates live in border towns, subject to being placed in another district.

Commission members of both parties say they do not expect that redistricting will push any of the candidates out of the 5th.

The commission is guided by a series of court decisions – and practical politics. Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said the GOP is proposing district lines without regard to incumbents.

But that is not entirely true. McKinney meant that that Republicans are not pushing for changes that would strengthen the political standing of incumbent senators. Both parties are taking care not to place two incumbents in the same district.

Republicans, who are in the minority in both chambers of the General Assembly and shut out of the congressional delegation, say they are especially sensitive to the need to draw districts that are competitive.

“There is some ideological stuff,” Cafero said. “We start out down 22 to 14 in the Senate, 99 to 52 in the House and 5 to 0 in the Congress. “One of the aspects that we believe needs to be our guiding principle, at least from our side, is political fairness.”

But Democrats say that the GOP’s political troubles are not a result of redistricting. The process 10 years ago, as is the case this year, is bipartisan.

After the 2001 redistricting, Republicans won a 3 to 2 advantage in the congressional delegation.

But Courtney unseated Republican Rob Simmons and Democrat Chris Murphy unseated Republican Nancy Johnson in 2006. Democrat Jim Himes beat Republican Chris Shays in 2008, completing the Democratic sweep.

The GOP picked up six state House seats after the new maps were drawn in 2001. But since then, the Democratic majority in the state House grew to 114 after the 2008 elections, then shrunk to 99.

Cafero and McKinney say that Republican legislative candidates win about 45 percent of the total votes cast in legislative races, but they struggle to win more than one-third of the seats.

Democrats say that measure is meaningless, since there is no evidence that previous bipartisan commissions have drawn districts to pack Republicans into a small number of districts, blunting their influence.

Democratic senators say 20 of the 36 Senate districts are competitive.

“It’s 22 to 14 now” in the state Senate, Looney said. “But there are 20 districts that were held by a Republican at least some time since 2002.”