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Tom and gerrymander



Jim Bensberg wants to be a state representative.

The former El Paso County commissioner appeared to have a good chance. His representative in House District 16, Republican Rep. Larry Liston, is term-limited, leaving the seat open in 2012. Bensberg, a high-profile Republican, announced his candidacy last December.

Eight months later, it looks like more and more of a long shot.

As the state's new legislative district maps are now drawn, Bensberg finds himself barely inside the boundaries of HD 21, home of former Republican county party chair and current state Rep. Bob Gardner.

Bensberg could move to another district to run, but he says that isn't something, as of yet, he is prepared to do. Or he could mount a primary challenge, but he doesn't see that as a viable option.

"[Gardner]'s a well-respected, well-liked legislator, and I wouldn't consider running a primary against him," he says. "If you know the outcome going in, there's not much sense spending your money, and other people's money, tilting at windmills."

His best bet?

"Hopefully I will be put back in my original district."

'The Schnoz'

El Paso County has the population to fit eight whole House districts within its boundaries. So why does one of its districts, HD 21, cross over into Fremont County, all the way to Penrose?

That was the question asked over and over again Tuesday night, when the Colorado Reapportionment Commission met with local constituents.

Every decade, when new U.S. Census data comes out, the state goes through the redrawing process. This month, the 11-member bipartisan commission is traveling the state, looking for public input on maps it has tentatively adopted after months of hearings and input from both Democrats and Republicans.

Colorado College professor Robert Loevy, a Republican, was appointed to the commission by Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Bender.

As Loevy explains, the commission operates under federal and state constitutional criteria. Each district must be roughly the same size, ought not cross county or municipal boundaries, be as compact as possible, and maintain the ambiguous "communities of interest."

Loevy agrees with constituents who see HD 21 as an unnecessary violation of constitutional standard. And so does Gardner. As he points out, when the district was drawn years ago, it had to extend into Fremont County to include enough voters. Now El Paso County offers enough voters that HD 21 could be encapsulated within it. And yet in the new map, the district still extends to Penrose.

Loevy believes HD 21 is gerrymandered to keep Democrat Pete Lee's House District 18 intact.

"It's an unusual shape," Loevy says. "The definition of gerrymander is a district that puts groups of people together for political purposes and winds up being tremendously weirdly shaped."

HD 21 extends from Penrose along the southern border of El Paso to the western edge of Fountain, including Fort Carson. It goes north to the eastern edge of Woodland Park, cutting around all of Manitou Springs and extending in a peninsula shape along the Garden of the Gods to the edge of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. (Gardner calls this peninsula "the Schnoz.")

Meanwhile, Lee, a Democrat, continues to represent Manitou and Old Colorado City, extending into downtown Colorado Springs.

"The Democrats on the reapportionment commission have managed to sell the idea that Rep. Lee's district, House District 18, ought to be set aside for him," says Gardner.

Gardner argues that portions of Manitou could easily have been placed in HD 21, extending Lee's boundary further north. This would have made both districts more competitive, he says.

Democrat Mike Merrifield, who represented HD 18 for eight years, points out that the district only has a slight Democratic advantage currently — he won his first election, in 2002, by 112 votes. "If Republicans think that it's not a competitive district," he says, "I'd recommend that they put up better candidates."

But Gardner seems most frustrated by the Senate map, calling it "a blatant gerrymander." He says Senate districts were drawn solely to protect a Democratic majority in Senate District 11, the seat of Majority Leader John Morse.

Morse doesn't buy the argument. He points out that last November, he won by only 340 votes out of 28,000 cast.

"My district was hugely competitive," he says. The change to his district, he says, adds 1 percent, maybe 2 percent, Democrats. "My district will remain competitive."

Up in the air

Bensberg doesn't have long to decide what he'll do. A candidate must live in his or her district for a year prior to Election Day, and the maps, which might be challenged in court, may not be finalized until the end of 2011.

But Bensberg isn't the only Republican to be drawn out of his district. First-term Rep. Janak Joshi, who currently represents HD 14 after being election last year, now finds himself in Liston's old district, oddly named — for the moment — HD 37.

Joshi seems amused by the whole situation, saying, "I'm not selling my house yet, or anything like that." If he remains in HD 37, he will run, he says, even if there is a primary challenge.

But as of now, it's a waiting game. As Loevy points out, in 2000, the commission adopted a whole new set of plans after the listening tour. Though he doesn't think it's likely, this commission could do the same thing.

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