Election 2018LegislatureNews

INSIGHTS: Legislation to shape state politics for decades barely got noticed

Author: Joey Bunch - May 21, 2018 - Updated: May 31, 2018

Old North End resident Bill Rogers looks at the city maps at the public hearing on redistricting at the Hillside Community Center in Colorado Springs in 2012. (The Gazette file photo)

The day after the legislative session ended May 9, most of the Capitol’s top brass met with reporters to size up what had happened the previous four months. They had big-ticket compromises to brag about, for sure. Putting $3 billion into transportation counts. So does fixing a $32 billion shortfall in the state public employees’ pension fund, as well as taking a bold stand on sexual harassment, expelling a member for the first time in more than a century and trying to kick out another.

After none of the lawmakers nor Gov. John Hickenlooper had mentioned it, I thought to ask Senate President Kevin Grantham about something huge that legislators did unanimously this year. I told him in 32 years as a reporter, I’ve never seen it before: politicians agreeing to give away political power.

“Thanks for mentioning that,” Grantham said. “There’s been so many other things in the last few days, that kind of dropped of my radar, too, but it’s a big deal when you have both sides giving up power but gaining from a much better process.”

After years — no, decades — of acrimony and lawyers’ fees, Coloradans in November will get to vote on a new way of drawing political boundaries for legislators and members of Congress.

The legislature put two questions on the ballot in November asking voters to approve commissions that will draw the lines using professional staff and independent, politically balanced commissions.

The way it’s done now is by lawmakers after the census every 10 years, and the governor wields a heavy sword with the ability to veto the maps. That means the party in the majority has every incentive to carve safe districts for its most valued members. As a result, very few seats in the statehouse are competitive.

While there is little chance most seats will flip to the other party, the party can exert incredible influence over legislators, who could face a primary driven by party leaders if they don’t put politics over districts. It’s a fact, not a perception.

But if voters allow it, the maps would be drawn with competitiveness as a factor. Legislative elections would get a lot more interesting, subject to a broader spectrum of views in more ideologically diverse districts.

Why did the political establishment finally agree to put it to a vote? Because they’re tired of gambling on holding a majority in the legislature and the governor’s office every 10 years. And they got tired of going to court.

Judges jumped in to settle the fight in 2001 and 2011. In 2011, Republicans had a one-seat majority in the House and Democrats held a 15-seat advantage in the Senate.

“Who drew those maps?” Grantham said. “Judges. Who did it advantage? Not us.”

He favored the ballot questions’ clear ground rules, as free from politics as possible, with solid definitions about “communities of interest” and keeping counties and neighboring cities, as often as possible, in the same legislative district.

“I think that can’t help but benefit both sides,” said Grantham, who sponsored the resolutions.

Both measures go directly to the ballot without the expensive and suspenseful process of collecting 98,492 signatures from registered voters. Now proponents can turn to selling the idea to the public. It shouldn’t be hard when the two options for political power are presented: Local voters or the party kingmakers who hold the real power over democracy.

Kent Thiry, the CEO of Denver-based DaVita Inc. who last year looked seriously at running for governor as a Republican, is a wealthy benefactor, and potentially so is Pat Stryker, the Fort Collins billionaire Democrat whose philanthropy has migrated from political battles to social good over the past decade.

Thiry led Fair Districts Colorado, a core bipartisan group that’s been trying to wrest away redistricting from the legislature the last few years. Liberal advocacy groups were distrustful, even though they were never specific on the ill deeds that were allegedly afoot, but it was enough to drain Democrats from the process.

Stryker’s people were in the ranks of People not Politicians, which was wary of aims to weaken minority voting rights. When the two groups worked out their differences, they created assurances and rules that legislators found easy to support.

“First we had to develop a little trust between the two sides, Democrats and Republicans, to see if there was a willingness to get to yes,” explained Joe Zimlich, chief executive of the Bohemian Cos., which is owned by Stryker. “We were used to getting to yes within our own tribes, but not as much with those outside it.”

Thiry, a champion of moderate views, showed himself to be a capable salesman at Club 20’s spring meeting in Grand Junction a few weeks ago. He eschewed backroom political deals that the current system invites, where party machines grind up challengers and assure allegiance to partisan views before voters have a say.

“Democracy has never been something where people go into a room and three hours later emerge with a final resolution everybody signed off on,” Thiry said, perfectly describing how Colorado policy gets made.

“That’s not what democracy was ever meant to be. Democracy is and always will be a full-contact sport and that noise and confrontation is essential to creating the best outcomes for everyone.”

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.