AUGUSTA – It is, the Republicans and Democrats say, the best they can do. But a statewide House redistricting plan submitted Tuesday to a special reapportionment panel has eliminated a district held by the Legislature’s only Green Independent Party member.
Members of Maine’s fledgling third party were so angry they were threatening court action when the 15-member Legislative Reapportionment Committee met to formally consider its findings.
“This plan was drawn mainly to protect incumbent Democrats in Portland,” said David Lourie, a Cape Elizabeth attorney representing the Greens. “This plan wasn’t supposed to protect incumbents for the next 10 years.”
Lourie was speaking on behalf of state Rep. John Eder, a Green from Portland’s liberal West End district. Because Portland gains what amounts to an additional half-seat under the reapportionment plan, new districts drawn up by the panel place Eder in the same district as state Rep. Ben Dudley, a sitting Democratic lawmaker from Portland’s Munjoy Hill neighborhood. Under the new plan, Eder would have to run against Dudley in 2004 if he wanted to retain his seat in the Legislature.
Pat LaMarche, the Green Independent Party’s 1998 gubernatorial candidate from Yarmouth, told committee members their consensus decision amounted to nothing more than a concerted effort to eliminate the toehold her party has managed to secure in the Maine Legislature. She compared the committee’s action to gerrymandering, a preconceived effort to divide a voting district in a way that provides an unfair advantage to a particular political party.
“We’ve really gotten the ability to see all kinds of things – especially as white folk – that we might not have gotten to see before,” she said in describing the proposal.
The state’s redistricting process is constitutionally mandated every 10 years to reflect changes in population as recorded in the most recent U.S. Census report. In addition to redrawing the political boundaries of the state’s House and Senate districts, the panel also must act on recommendations for the state’s county commissioner districts and the division of Maine’s two congressional districts.
The panel, which will reconvene for a likely vote today, has until Friday to agree on the new districts before they are obligated to send their recommendations to the full Legislature in the form of a bill. Lawmakers then have 10 days to enact the changes, and those affirmative votes require two-thirds support in the House and Senate.
If, as in 1993, the Legislature fails to muster supermajority support for the plans, the issue would be forwarded to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which would have the final say on how the new political boundaries would be set.
Ryan Low, a Democratic consultant for the House redistricting plan, said the new map reflects the dramatic decline in population in northern and eastern Maine with districts increasing from their current sizes by about 350 people for an average of about 8,443 persons per district. Low said about 70,000 people moved from northern Maine to the southern regions of the state. That new demographic was particularly painful in Aroostook County, which would lose two House seats under the revision.
Piscataquis and Penobscot counties lose a House seat between the two regions under the House plan. Washington County goes down a half-seat and Somerset County loses something between a half-seat and three-quarters of a seat, Low said. The midcoast region, stretching from Mount Desert Island to the Boothbay Harbor area, would gain a House seat due to an influx of new arrivals and retirees.
The new proposed political map also reflects the flight from the state’s cities and the explosive growth of the suburbs, with Bangor losing a portion of one House seat.
While the redrawn districts would not force a primary, they would – as in the case of Eder and Dudley – force some sitting lawmakers to run against each other. In Aroostook County, Rep. Raymond Wotton, D-Littleton, would be placed in the same district as Rep. John Churchill, R-Washburn. Also in Aroostook County, Rep. William J. Smith, D-Van Buren, would be placed in the same district as Rep. Florence T. Young, R-Limestone.
“Without a doubt, northern and eastern Maine has lost some significant political power in terms of seats,” said Low.
While Democrats and Republicans reached consensus on the House plan, the parties have not yet agreed on a similar proposal for the Senate or the congressional districts. Former University of Maine Law School dean Don Zillman, the committee’s chair, said he would wait until today to see if the panel would act on competing plans for the other political districts or simply leave it for the Legislature or Maine Supreme Judicial Court to decide.