House Democratic leader blasts independent redistricting

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, talks with Republican leadership during a debate in the House on Feb. 16. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – In a recent talk with activists, Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf slammed the idea of establishing an independent commission to draw new legislative districts, contending it would undermine the pursuit of progressive priorities that wouldn’t be feasible in a closely divided House.

His remarks came in a Zoom video conference last week with members of Retake Our Democracy, a left-leaning group that supports creation of an independent redistricting panel.

Legislation now pending in the House calls for creating an independent commission – led by a retired judge or justice – to craft congressional and legislative districts after the census without political considerations, such as whether the plans favor incumbents or a particular party.

It’s co-sponsored by 33 members of the House – nearly half the chamber. Supporters include Democrats, Republicans and an independent.

Egolf, D-Santa Fe, didn’t hold back when asked about the proposal by the board president of Retake Our Democracy.

“I think that it puts at unacceptable peril a woman’s right to choose, environmental protection, fairness in taxation,” Egolf said in last week’s Zoom call. “It puts at tremendous peril all of the progressive causes that we care about.”

Asked about the comments Thursday, Egolf said he is confident that legislators can draw fair district boundaries that encourage voters to participate in elections, protect communities of interest and uphold constitutional principles. He said he is committed to soliciting public input throughout the state.

“Absolutely, we will produce fair maps,” Egolf said.

But until there’s a uniform national program for independent redistricting, he said, he believes New Mexico lawmakers should draw the boundaries. Democrats hold substantial majorities in both legislative chambers.

In an interview, Egolf said he had been “shaken to my core” by the attack on the U.S. Capitol last month by supporters of Donald Trump and the broader Republican push to overturn the election results.

“I cannot in good conscience turn over the process of drawing electoral boundaries to a party that is on record and committed to disenfranchising the people that voted for Joe Biden in highly contested states,” he said.

Clash over independent body

In a separate interview, Edward Chavez, a retired state Supreme Court justice who supports independent redistricting, disputed the assertion that neutrally drawn districts would result in close partisan margins in a legislative chamber.

The House districts now in place were shaped by a state district judge after a Republican governor and Democratic legislative majorities couldn’t agree. But the current maps, Chavez said, haven’t stopped Republicans and Democrats from each claiming narrow majorities in the House over the last decade, or prevented Democrats from running up huge majorities the last few years.

“Voters change political opinions and preferences all the time,” Chavez said in an interview, “and legislators cannot control that. If the candidates don’t adapt, they’re going to lose no matter who draws the districts.”

The independent redistricting legislation, he said, has broader benefits besides just having an outside group propose maps. It also calls for a series of public hearings intended to ensure the maps take into account community concerns.

“I’m for encouraging an increase in voter participation,” Chavez said. “I think you do that by giving voters a fair and equal opportunity to vote for someone they think will adequately represent them.”

Chavez is a Democrat, though he also has been registered as an independent.

James Jimenez, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, questioned whether an independent commission is necessarily fair. Progressive groups and voters have mobilized in recent elections to help change the composition of the Legislature, he said, and now people want a new system.

“The implication is that maybe these progressive were a little too successful,” Jimenez said, “and we need to change the rules on them.”

Republican Rep. Kelly Fajardo of Los Lunas – a co-sponsor of the independent redistricting bill – said the sole aim of an outside commission would be to produce fair districts. Manipulating boundaries to favor one political party or another is wrong, she said, no matter who does it.

“Anybody who doesn’t want independent redistricting,” Fajardo said, “wants gerrymandering. … The reason we have gerrymandering is to silence votes.”

Dems in powerful position

In his remarks to Retake Our Democracy, Egolf described district maps as a factor in the future political makeup of the House.

As an example, he said, closer margins in the House – where Democrats now hold a 45-24-1 majority – might have prevented passage of a recent bill protecting abortion rights in New Mexico. Even in a House where Democrats hold a 39-31 or closer edge, he said, some Democrats would have conservative constituents to respond to.

“You still have eight to 10 Democrats elected from more conservative areas of the state,” Egolf said, “and the agenda goes out the window.”

He suggested Republicans have their own political motives for backing legislation that would put district maps in the hands of an outside commission. When Republicans are in charge, Egolf said, they push every advantage they can to protect their partisan position.

“I don’t understand why Democrats want to unilaterally disarm,” he said.

In contrast to the last two rounds of redistricting – when judges eventually stepped in to help draw the districts – Democrats now hold the Governor’s Office, in addition to majorities in both legislative chambers, putting them in a powerful position to set the district boundaries.

The new round of redistricting is expected to be done in a special session likely to be called by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham later this year.

Egolf said he expected a special session in December – later than usual, he said, due to legal fights over then-President Trump’s handling of the census.

Time running out on two bills

Two bills proposed in the House and Senate would establish an independent commission to redraw congressional and legislative districts.

Without an independent commission, it’s up to legislators and the governor to agree on the boundaries of new districts based on new U.S. Census Bureau data – a process that gives incumbents an incentive to draw boundaries that cement their hold on public office or benefit their political party.

House Bill 211 and Senate Bill 199 call for a seven-member redistricting commission to lead the work instead. A retired justice or judge would serve as chairperson, with members selected by the State Ethics Commission or party leaders in the House and Senate.

The commission would deliver proposed maps to the Legislature, which would pick one without amendment.

Time is running out on the bills.

The House legislation has cleared one committee but has two more to go before it could reach the full House for consideration. The Senate bill hasn’t had a committee hearing yet and must clear three committees.

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