Legislators ready to redraw districts; Dems will deal with population shifts

News-DemocratFebruary 20, 2011 

To the victor go the spoils. And at no time will that old adage be more true than when the Democrats who control Springfield gather later this spring.

Their aim: to carve out maps for 18 U.S. House seats, 59 state Senate seats and 118 state House seats to reflect Illinois population gains and losses, as documented by last week's newly minted U.S. census figures.

It'll be a closely watched process, not just in Illinois, but nationwide.

That's because Democrats this year will control the congressional redistricting process in only seven states. And even though Illinois will lose one of its 19 U.S. House seats, it still is important to Democrats in terms of influence and size.

What makes Illinois even more crucial to beleaguered U.S. House Democrats is that while Republican state legislatures will be redrawing boundaries for 180 House seats, the Democrats will be redistricting for just 50, according to one analysis.

Already, some leading Illinois Republicans are fuming about what they fear will be a blatantly partisan process enabling the dominant Democrats to redraw map boundaries in the most self-serving ways.

"I think they will be as political as they possibly can be as long as they stay within the law," said state Sen. David Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, a member of the Senate Redistricting Committee.

Luechtefeld conceded no method of redrawing legislative maps is perfect. Politics plays a central role somehow.

"But I always tell people it can't be worse than what we have right now, when you allow one party to draw the map they want," he said.

Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton, who also sits on the redistricting panel, vigorously defended the integrity and transparency of the Democrats' redistricting efforts.

"It will be an open process. And then we'll all have to run for office," Haine said. "So we have to go to the voters and say, 'This is what we've done.' If they don't like it, it's adios."

Haine noted that when Republicans controlled Springfield in the late 1990s, then-Senate President James "Pate" Phillip, R-Wood Dale, was known for his tight control of the remapping process.

"I heard a lot of comments that Pate Phillip drew the map by himself with no input," said Haine, at the time Madison County's state's attorney. "So we're not going to follow that blueprint. We're going to take input from everybody as we've done. We're going to have hearings."

For Democrats, the biggest balancing act will center on Chicago, which lost 200,000 residents since the 2000 census.

As a result, Democratic lawmakers must carve out a district that reflects the exodus of black voters and influx of Hispanic ones, said John Tillman, the chief executive officer of the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative group advocating free-market policies based in Springfield.

The drawing of new congressional districts around Chicago poses some tough problems for Democrats, Tillman said.

"Who do they take from, in other words?" he said. "Are they going to take from an African-American district?"

In St. Clair County, big redistricting challenges loom as the county continued to trend Republican -- all three County Board seats open in the November election went to GOP candidates -- and as East St. Louis and nearby bastions of Democrat voters shed residents.

At the same time, towns around Scott Air Force Base, such as O'Fallon and Lebanon, grew significantly, boosting Republican ranks.

Tillman predicted the Democrats will end up drawing district maps that resemble "spider webs" and "dart boards" centered in Chicago and stretching into neighboring suburbs.

"They'll have a bulls-eye in the middle of Chicago, and then they'll have spikes that go out to pick up swatches of suburban voters," he said. "That's what they're going to have to do because of the population shifts into the counties."

Michael McDonald, an associate professor of political science at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va., agreed that Democrats will be getting creative with redrawn districts around Chicago, as well as other districts further south.

"All of the districts will have to be reconfigured considerably," said McDonald, who has testified as an expert witness before the state Senate's redistricting panel.

"There's going to be a lot of disruption of the constituent-representative link in Illinois," he said. "The maps going to be shaken up quite a bit."

No matter how clever Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan and other top Democrats are in drawing new district maps, they face a tough road because many Illinois voters are abandoning the Democratic Party, Tillman said.

"What I always found fascinating is this myth that this is a hardcore Democratic state," he said. "It actually isn't. What it is, is a state that had a bankrupt Republican Party and a dead movement for a long time, particularly because of (ex-Gov.) George Ryan's corruption. And people quit calling themselves Republican, and nobody gave them a reason to come back."

But now they are finding that reason to return to Republican ranks, thanks to widely publicized corruption allegations against ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, as well as the state's $15 billion budget deficit and the recent big income tax increase Democrats passed in the wee hours of the legislative session that ended in January.

"I think what we saw in 2010, the Republican side of the equation came back strong," Tillman said. "But they're not all the way back."

Another major issue that Democrats will face during redistricting is that advances in computer technology since 2000 make it easier than ever to monitor and challenge the process, said Bruce Cain, a University of California at Berkeley political science professor.

"Every decade, it gets easier for outside people and outside groups to do their own redistricting," he said. "The software gets cheaper. The availability of data gets easier."

Consequently, there will be more clamoring for public input, said Cain, who has also testified before the state Senate redistricting committee.

"That can be a very bad public relations thing on top what has been a rough decade for Illinois in terms of PR," he said. "You can have a backroom deal, but you have to let some light in as well."

Ultimately, all voters expect "substantive fairness" in the redistricting process, Cain said.

"The best we can do is develop a plan that allows people to have consensus," he said. "The more consensus you can get, the better the plan is."

Haine acknowledged that Illinois voters leaned Republican in 2010. But 2012 might be different, he said.

"Each election cycle is different, and there are different issues," he said. "We have to show the voters we are fiscally responsible with their money."

As for the redistricting process?

"We have to show we're fair and transparent," Haine said.

Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at mfitzgerald@bnd.com or 239-2533.

Belleville News-Democrat is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service