CAP TIMES: GOP's redistricting plan splits up communities of color

July 14, 2011
Jessica Vanegeren and Shawn Doherty

When Fitchburg Mayor Shawn Pfaff first was elected to office in April, one of his first priorities was to create new voting districts that reflected the city's diversity.

To that end, a committee created one district that circled Fitchburg's farms, another that included its urban area, and two that included more minority voters than whites.

The move to create so-called majority-minority districts made it more likely that the city's 5,000 Hispanics and 2,500 African-Americans would be represented by one of their own. Giving "communities of interest" a distinct voice in the electoral process is a priority of redistricting, according to federal guidelines.

Yet when Republican lawmakers released Wisconsin's new congressional and legislative district maps Friday, the number of minority districts dropped from two to one.

It's a change that bothers Pfaff.

"We had a really good map that reflected our community," said Pfaff, a staffer in former Gov. Jim Doyle's administration. "Now, we'd have to change it by carving out one of the apartment complexes on North Fish Hatchery Road and putting it in a white, suburban neighborhood."

As Pfaff and numerous other city officials across the state are realizing, months of redistricting work could be worth little more than the paper they are printed on if a Republican-led effort to change the state's redistricting laws is approved by the Legislature as early as Tuesday.

The redistricting process, a mandatory exercise officials on all levels of government undertake every 10 years to account for population shifts as reported by the U.S. Census, is always a politically charged process.

This round in Wisconsin is even more so.

Republicans are not only stirring up the usual complaints of partisan politics, largely due to the fact the maps were first made public eight working days before they could be voted on and finalized, but because they want to change the entire process for creating the maps.

For decades, cities and counties across the state have had dibs on using updated census numbers to redraw district lines for city, county and school board seats. Once the local governments finished, the maps were sent to the Legislature for the state's legislative and congressional districts to be redrawn.

On Tuesday, however, lawmakers will vote on a bill that would flip that process by allowing state lawmakers to first draw the congressional and legislative districts. They would then turn the maps over to local municipalities and counties.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said completed district maps for the state's largest city were approved by a 15-0 City Council vote Friday.

"We have to decide whether to throw out all the work we have done," Barrett said. "What the Republicans are doing obliterates the redistricting process."

As in Fitchburg, the new maps created by the Legislature split up minority-voting blocks in Milwaukee as well.

In Madison, however, it looks like changes will be minimal, most likely because the GOP figured the city and the surrounding area were a lost cause when it comes to redrawing boundaries.

"Republicans can't gain seats in Madison," said Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Now, a Madison-based progressive advocacy group. "All the districts in and around Madison are Democratic districts. In places like Milwaukee, it is much more fluid."

Madison City Council members and staff have spent the past seven months working on the city's new maps, trying out more than 14 different versions of the redistricting plan. But the net change under the state GOP plan would be to create six new wards, affecting roughly 12,300 voters, most of them near Dane County Regional Airport.

In all, six new wards could be created in Madison, impacting roughly 12,300 voters. One of the new wards would include the airport and 31 voters. Federal guidelines dictate a city the size of Madison have no fewer than 1,000 and no more than 4,000 voters per ward.

Nicholas Zavos, a Madison lobbyist Madison, said the city could ask for an exemption to allow a district so small to exist. A public hearing will be held Tuesday in Madison on the new city maps.

"The city will have to make some minor adjustments, which will be a pain, but we can do it without throwing out everything we have done up until now," said City Attorney Michael May.

Many others aren't in the same position.

Fitchburg's Pfaff testified at a public hearing on the redistricting maps Wednesday at the Capitol and said Fitchburg would be seeking exemptions to keep its original districts.

"It's my understanding Republicans are somewhat interested in helping special circumstances like ours," Pfaff said.