With the GOP pressing for advantage and Democrats defending a favorable status quo, a deadlocked redistricting commission missed its court-imposed deadline of noon Wednesday, forcing the Connecticut Supreme Court to take on the job of drawing five new U.S. House districts.
Republicans on the bipartisan panel gave up on a radical plan to create a solidly Republican 4th District, but they continued to press for major changes that would have improved the GOP’s chances in the 2012 race for the open 5th District seat by shifting Democratic New Britain from the 5th to the 1st.
Bristol, Torrington, Colebrook, Winchester, Hartland, Barkhamsted and New Hartford would have shifted from the 1st to the 5th.
Both parties kept a tight focus on electoral politics as they drew their maps, with Democrats claiming the virtue of making minimal changes in a map deemed politically fair 10 years ago, when the state lost a seat and had to draw a 5th District competitive for two incumbents.
“This is unfortunate. It’s regrettable, and it was avoidable,” said Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, a co-chairman of the commission.
Population changes were so modest, the existing map needed only minor tinkering, aside from the desire of the Republican Party to press for an advantage that could produce a GOP congressional win in Connecticut for the first time since 2006, Williams said.
But Republicans say the existing map is an awkwardly drawn, bipartisan gerrymander that placed New Britain, a racially diverse city just outside Hartford, in a 5th District that stretches to Danbury on the state’s western border with New York.
“It’s hypocrisy,” said House Minority Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, the other co-chairman. “You want to talk about political motives? They own all five districts and they want to keep them. Period. End of story.”
The GOP map would have given minorities a stronger voice in the 1st, boosting the minority population from 35 percent to 40 percent. But it would have come at a cost to minority influence in the the 5th, reducing minority population from 27 percent to 20 percent.
Black and Latino politicians, all Democrats, said the Republicans’ claim that their plan would have ehanced chances for a minority candidate to eventually be elected in the 1st was a pretext. If the GOP was interested in helping minorities, they might have consulted with the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, said Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven.
“That didn’t happen,” he said.
Despite the harsh rhetoric at competing press conferences, each party said the protracted negotiations were conducted in good faith.
The two sides gave up trying to compromise on Tuesday, but they did not publicly admit failure until Wednesday morning, when The Mirror reported a deadlock.
“We did reach an impasse late yesterday. We do not have an agreement to report to the courts,” said Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, one of the four Democratic legislators on the panel. “It’s in their hands.”
Cafero said the two parties agreed on the placement of all but 13 municipalities, with most of the disagreement centering around the ragged border of the 1st and 5th districts.
“I think it boils down to New Britain,” Cafero said.
Now, it is an issue for the court. Will the justices accept the Democratic map, with its minimal changes from 10 years ago? Will they favor a GOP map that is geographically compact?
None of the commission members were willing to predict. Each side will submit briefs to the court late Wednesday afternoon, suggesting procedures the court might follow.
The court’s deadline is Feb. 15, the fourth and presumably final deadline in the protracted process that began when the U.S. Census Bureau delivered the results of its 2010 census in March.
In a brief filed Wednesday afternoon, the Democrats asked the court to set a deadline of January 6 for them and Republicans to submit revised maps for the court to consider.
The legislature’s bipartisan redistricting committee of four Democrats and four Republicans missed an initial deadline of Sept. 15. Reconstituted as a redistricting commission, it produced maps of the 187 General Assembly districts by its next deadline of Nov. 30.
The Supreme Court granted the panel an extension until Dec. 21 to work on the congressional districts.
In 2001, the issue briefly was in the hands of the court, but a commission ultimately agreed on a new map after being given more time. The state then 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.
Commission members have not shared details of their talks in recent weeks.
Democrats had proposed a map that made minimal changes from 2001 to balance population in the districts.
Republicans offered a version that eliminates the oddly drawn borders required in 2001 to craft a 5th Congressional District that provided a level playing field for two incumbents forced to compete for one seat, Democrat James Maloney of Danbury and Republican Nancy Johnson of New Britain.
The original GOP map would have removed both Danbury and New Britain from the 5th. Danbury would have been included in the 4th, while New Britain would become part of the 1st.
But the map also would have greatly diminished the re-election chances of U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, by shifting heavily Democratic Bridgeport, crucial to Himes’ victory in 2008 and re-election in 2010, to the 3rd District.
In their final version, the Republicans gave up on major changes in the 4th District, focusing on the open seat in the 5th, where one of the Democratic candidates is House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan of Meriden. Donovan was on the commission until Nov. 30, when he gave up his seat to House Majority Leader J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden.
Williams called all the Republican versions “radical.”
But Rep. Arthur O’Neil, R-Southbury, the only member on redistricting panels this year and in 2001, said, “The radical change was 10 years ago, and it was forced on us by having to accomodate two incumbents after losing a seat.”
The Republicans are seeking to undo that radical change, he said.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, a commission member, said the GOP drew its map without regard to incumbents, unlike the effort 10 years ago. But the party showed a sensitivity to the residence of candidates in the 5th.
Five candidates — three Republicans and two Democrats — live in border towns that easily could have ended up in a different district. One of them was Donovan. All remained in the 5th under both the GOP and Democratic maps.
Technically, the deadlock on the bipartisan panel could have been broken without court intervention.
When the group of four Democrats and four Republicans 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.
But Williams said the eight legislators were committed to following decades of precedent and practice: They would negotiate a balanced map, or let a court decide.