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El Paso County Democrats say redistricting favors Republican commissioners

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Dems: 'You're the gerrymanderer.' GOP: 'No, you're the gerrymanderer!' - NAT STEIN
  • Nat Stein
  • Dems: 'You're the gerrymanderer.' GOP: 'No, you're the gerrymanderer!'

The El Paso County Board of County Commissioners will soon redraw their own districts as part of a routine process that has nonetheless caused consternation.

Districts were last drawn in 2015. Since then, the county has gained population, most significantly in Districts 1 and 2. (Those are the north and northeast districts, currently represented by Darryl Glenn and Mark Waller, respectively.) So, for the five districts to remain roughly equal, Districts 1 and 2 need to shed some area to District 3, 4 and 5. (Those are the west, south and central districts, represented by Stan VanderWerf, Longinos Gonzalez Jr. and Peggy Littleton, respectively.) To that end, County Clerk and Recorder Chuck Broerman has proposed three redrawn maps for the commissioners to consider, tweak and adopt by next month.

The proposed changes have some people calling foul.

Outside the board's May 25th meeting, progressive activists gathered with signs accusing their representatives of gerrymandering — or setting electoral boundaries to favor one party (in this case, the GOP). Inside, they leveled that accusation, commissioners reacted defensively, and bitterness lingered after the meeting adjourned.

During the 30-day public comment period, which began that day and will end June 24, the clerk's office has received over a hundred comments — far more than the norm of around 10. Those with concerns focused more on the process of redistricting than the substance, though not exclusively.

The minority party wants at least one district to be winnable.

El Paso County Democratic Party Chair Electra Johnson, who lost the race for commissioner in District 3 by a slim margin in November, had misgivings about potential changes to that district's boundaries. "It looks like they're moving toward putting District 3 further out of reach," she says of the clerk's maps, all three of which would move sections of Monument from district 1 to 3. Johnson believes gerrymandering in El Paso County first began when Monument, Palmer Lake and the area generally northeast of Woodmen Road became part of District 3 in 2015, given that northern section tends to vote more conservatively than the central and southwest sections.

But Broerman, a Republican, counters that District 3 has expanded north not for political reasons but because residents affected by the Waldo Canyon Fire ought to have consistent representation. In 2015, during the first redistricting since the 2012 fire, then-District Commissioner Sallie Clark championed the idea that the wildland-urban interface is a "community of interest" worthy of maintaining within a single district. That had both a practical purpose (she could better advocate for fire recovery and mitigation) and a philosophical one (those who shared that experience now have a common identity).

But the Democratic chair sees other issues with the proposed maps, like the Patty Jewett neighborhood continuing to straddle Districts 3 and 5, so she decided to submit a proposal of her own. Using satellite imaging of recent housing development to model population growth overlaid on a current district map subdivided by precinct, the architect-turned-politician tried her own hand at redrawing the boundaries. She sent her version, which you can see here, to the clerk's office for the commissioners' consideration.

Although it's unlikely that Johnson's map will be adopted, it's not unheard of for outsiders to submit their own proposals, according to Gary Fornander, board member of Colorado Common Cause, a nonpartisan nonprofit that watchdogs transparency and ethics in government. He represents that group on the Pikes Peak Equality Coalition's (PPEC) elections committee, which works with city and county election administrators.

He commends Colorado Springs City Clerk Sarah Johnson for including citizen input much earlier in this year's city redistricting ahead of the April elections. "The city has a pretty robust public process now, with a citizens advisory committee and lots of hearings prior to the maps actually being drawn," Fornander says. "And I think they came out well for that reason."

But the county clerk was unwilling to follow the city's example. Fornander, active in the Democratic party, says after 2015, PPEC had "an understanding" with Broerman that this time around, citizens and nonpartisan groups would be included earlier in the process. "But we found out that didn't happen when we saw, 'Oh, the hearing is announced,'" he says. "So that's what we're upset about. The way they did it, it's perfectly legal. But it's frustrating because at this point, the three maps have been presented [and] they're not going to change much. Maybe a little around the edges, but there won't be any new thinking."

Broerman, for his part, acknowledges he failed to make good on an old promise. "It's one of those things, you know — oops," he told the Independent. But, either way, his office doesn't necessarily welcome "any new thinking," since the goal, as spokesperson Mattie Albert put it, is "to move around as few precincts as possible to minimize the impact here."

In part, that's so people can vote in the district their accustomed to. It's also because better data is on its way. For now, the clerk's office uses proprietary population data for redistricting purposes, but in 2021, results from the next U.S. census will be available. "There's still a lot of growth going on, so we didn't want to make wide, sweeping changes until we get a better sense of where things shake out," Albert says.

District 2 Commissioner Mark Waller, a Republican, is frustrated with Democrats' frustration. "They come in and complain about the process but the process that's due to them is the 30-day comment period to weigh in on [the clerk's] maps," he says. "That's what's required by state law and that's what's happening."

Also, Waller feels the criticism is hypocritical, given Democrats' hand in the 2011 redistricting of state legislative seats that drew some Republican incumbents into the same district, forcing primaries and, in his view, disadvantaging his party in the legislature to this day. "Maybe they just don't know the history here, but I think they just choose to ignore it when it benefits them," he says.

(Notably, the U.S. Supreme Court just announced it would hear a case on the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering. Should the court ban the practice, state-level legislators nationwide and Congressional seats would be affected, largely to the disadvantage of Republicans, who have better taken advantage of the practice nationwide.)

Waller also disputes the premise that the county commission is imbalanced. "I don't think anybody can argue [the board] doesn't have enough minority representation when we've got a woman, an African-American and a Hispanic," he says, adding that "just because those minorities don't have their political affiliation doesn't mean they're not minorities. That's not the criteria."

In a county where Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly two-to-one, it's unlikely the board will ever be controlled by Democrats. But Democrats insist that having zero commissioners on the board is unrepresentative.

"I think there's a moral argument for creating competitive districts," Fornander says, admitting that even if one or two were in play, "the balance of power wouldn't change."

But Waller doesn't see county politics as a team sport anyway. "At the county level, we're mostly dealing with development and infrastructure. Roads and bridges — those aren't exactly partisan issues. When there's congestion on I-25, that doesn't just impact Republicans or Democrats, it impacts all of us."

Democrats like Johnson counter that county government could better meet those needs with more tax revenue, which Republicans have limited. "Our community is going to keep losing out if we keep passing off the costs of development," she says.

The clerk's office is accepting comments until June 24. Submit them to Albert at mattiealbert@elpasoco.com or 520-6226.

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