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Redistricting is a ‘hot mess’

A list of pending bills in the Oregon House during the 2021 regular session. [Photo courtesy of Oregon Rep. Karin Power]

The redrawing of political maps in Oregon has ground to a halt amid catcalls of gerrymandering.

“It’s a hot mess, there’s no question about it,” said Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland.

On Wednesday, the legislative effort to create new Congressional districts, already slowed down by COVID-19, was abruptly put on hold until Saturday, allowing only three days before a deadline that would require handing over the process to a panel of judges.

Currently Oregon has five Congressional districts but will add a sixth because of population increases identified by the latest U.S. Census Bureau count. A separate map will also affect how Oregon Senate and House districts are carved up.

Golden said there’s a good chance the legislative districts will get approved, but he’s not optimistic about the Congressional district map, pointing out that there is considerable national political interest and pressure on the process.

He said he hasn’t personally been subjected to this political pressure, saying it’s above his pay grade.

Oregon is one of many states where battles are being waged over redistricting, which ultimately will determine the political makeup of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The only way out of this mess, Golden said, is to take the redistricting out of the hands of legislators and place it in the hands of an independent commission, a move that other states have already embraced.

“Whatever the path, let’s get out of the business of drawing maps that affect our own political fortunes,” he said. Golden’s Senate district represents the south part of Jackson County.

Democrats have proposed a map that would leave Jackson County in the 2nd Congressional District, the largest Congressional District in the state, which stretches to the Eastern Oregon border.

The new 2nd Congressional District, which would remain the only solidly Republican district in the state, would expand to include all of Josephine County and part of Douglas County. Bend would move into Congressional District 3, which extends into the Portland area.

Despite his reservations about the process, Golden described the Democratic Congressional redistricting proposal as “defensible.”

“I don’t think this is radical plan,” he said. “It’s child’s play compared to what they do in North Carolina and Florida.”

He said the kind of gerrymandering in other states has been taken to a whole new level and has only worsened.

“The (U.S.) Supreme Court basically said gerrymandering is legal for partisan reasons,” he said.

Under the Democratic plan, five of the six Congressional districts would lean heavily toward Democrats.

Oregon Senate Republicans blasted the proposal Wednesday in a press release: “Today Senate Democrats rammed through partisan gerrymandered redistricting plans that will rig elections for the next decade.”

Rep. Kim Wallan, R-Medford, said it’s obvious from the map that the districts have been gerrymandered in favor of Democrats.

“The definition of a gerrymandered map is it wedges into a population center to create various districts,” she said. The population center is concentrated in Portland.

Also, 56% of the state voted Democratic in the last presidential election, but the Democrats’ plan would create five Democratic districts and only one Republican, Wallan said.

She said Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek, a Democrat representing northeast Portland, went back on her word to allow Republicans a seat at the table.

As to the legislative districts, Wallan said they are generally about the same in Jackson County.

But, she also said there are Republicans and some Democrats who aren’t happy with the way the legislative districts were carved up in the northern part of the state.

Wallan said she plans to go back to Salem Saturday and hasn’t heard anything about another Republican walkout.

If there is a walkout, it could jeopardize the proposed legislative redistricting map, she said.

Wallan said she would favor having an independent commission take over the redistricting of the state.

On Wednesday, Kotek pulled the plug on a deal that allowed Republicans equal say in the redistricting process. She created two new committees, one to draw the Congressional map and one to draw the legislative map.

Democrats would have a 2-to-1 advantage on the Congressional map committee.

Oregon is not the only state waging a battle over Congressional redistricting.

Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, said she remains optimistic that the Legislature, when it reconvenes Saturday, will be able to finish the redistricting work before the Monday deadline.

Despite objections from Republicans, Marsh said she thought the new maps are a good faith effort to create congressional districts that divide Oregon into regions with shared interests.

“I remain hopeful we will be able to check off this work, but as each day passes it becomes more doubtful,” she said. “When this is over, we need to have a renewed look at an independent commission.”

Marsh said a political effort to redraw district maps is always subject to accusations of bias, and she thought an independent commission would help alleviate that concern.

Marsh said the proposed legislative maps would only slightly affect House and Senate districts in Jackson County.

Reach freelance writer Damian Mann at dmannnews@gmail.com.