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Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Dems Want To Redraw Districts

By Loie Fecteau
Journal Political Writer
    SANTA FE Senate Democrats want to reopen New Mexico's congressional redistricting completed last year by a judge after taxpayer costs of more than $4 million to make the map of the state's three U.S. House districts more Democratic-leaning.
    Republicans said Tuesday redistricting already has been done.
    But Senate President Pro Tem Richard Romero, D-Albuquerque, said he and other Democrats would probably revive congressional boundary plans aimed at strengthening the odds of a Democrat winning in the 1st or 2nd Congressional Districts. Those seats currently are held by Republicans.
    "The question is which one is more winnable (for Democrats)," said Romero, the unsuccessful Democratic challenger against Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., in the Albuquerque-based 1st Congressional District last year.
    Democrats, in the form of Rep. Tom Udall in the 3rd Congressional District, hold just one of New Mexico's U.S. House seats despite a continuing voter registration advantage statewide.
    Romero said Tuesday that legislators have the right to reopen congressional redistricting because the issue was decided in January 2002 by a state judge and not by lawmakers and the governor.
    New Mexico's congressional redistricting plan was thrown to the courts after the Democratic-controlled Legislature and former Republican Gov. Gary Johnson failed to agree on new congressional boundaries using the 2000 Census.
    The redistricting battle, which included a 17-day special session in September 2001 and two court trials before a state district judge, cost New Mexico taxpayers over $4 million.
    "It's legal," Romero said Tuesday of the planned Senate action to reopen the redistricting issue. "Since the courts settled ours, we didn't do our job. So, we actually can and are going to do our job."
    Sen. Leonard Tsosie, D-Crownpoint, has introduced a bill (SB 667), which he said is aimed at reuniting Native Americans in a single congressional district.
    "This is an improvement of the court-ordered plan," Tsosie said. "When the court did its plan, it split many of the Native American communities. I'm trying to bring them back together."
    Tsosie's bill is scheduled to be heard today in the Senate Rules Committee.
    Meanwhile, Romero acknowledged some Senate Democrats would try to change New Mexico's congressional district boundaries beyond what Tsosie has proposed in an attempt to benefit Democrats.
    Democrats enjoy a 1.6 to 1 voter registration edge over Republicans in New Mexico but hold only the 3rd Congressional District seat. Wilson holds the 1st District, and Republican Steve Pearce has succeeded longtime Rep. Joe Skeen, R-N.M., in the 2nd District.
    Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat who took office on Jan. 1, said Tuesday he supports the goals of Tsosie's bill "on principle."
    "I believe the Native American people should not be split up in redistricting," said Richardson, who would not comment further.
    Republicans on Tuesday were quick to condemn the move by Democrats to revisit congressional redistricting.
    "I think it's illegal," said state Republican Party chairman John Dendahl. "As far as I'm concerned, this (redistricting) is a done deal."
    Dendahl said he thought it unwise to reopen redistricting, which he called "a very long and torturous process and very expensive."
    "It was very expensive for the private sector," Dendahl said. "We (the state GOP) spent close to $500,000, and it was very expensive for taxpayers, too."
    Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said he thinks redistricing is "a moot issue."
    "The court decision was very fair," Ingle said. "But I'm not surprised they (the Democrats) are trying something like this."
    Wilson spokesman Enrique Carlos Knell said Wilson thinks it would be unfair to New Mexico voters to reopen redistricting "because voters have already gone to the polls under the new plan decided by the judge."
    However, Romero contends Republicans in some other states that ended up in the courts over redistricting based on the 2000 Census are now trying to redo their political maps legislatively as well.
    "Republicans are doing it in Texas and they're doing it in Georgia and in a couple other states," Romero said.
    Romero said it was unlikely New Mexico lawmakers would revisit New Mexico's 70 House districts, which also were redrawn by a state judge after a trial in Albuquerque.
    "The House likes their (judge-drawn) plan," Romero said.
    Romero said lawmakers are unable to revisit redistricting for the state's 42 Senate districts because the Legislature and Johnson agreed on a new political map for the Senate during the 2002 regular session.
    "The Senate plan was signed, sealed and delivered, as they say," Romero said. "But the congressional one is still kind of up in the air because it was never settled by the legislative process."
    District Judge Frank Allen Jr. opted for a "least change" plan in his congressional redistricting decision.
    Allen rejected a plan approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature that would have split Albuquerque among the state's three congressional districts in an effort to create a district with a Hispanic, and presumably Democratic-leaning, majority.
    Allen also rejected Republican proposals to create a new "high-tech district" linking Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories.
    Allen instead selected a so-called "least change" congressional map submitted by a group of Republicans and supported by Johnson.
    The judge said in his decision that redistricting is primarily the responsibility of the Legislature and the governor and that more radical change to the state's political maps would have to come from them.