SHELLA: Spoils of redistricting go to the victor

Jim ShellaMy house on the north side of Indianapolis used to be in the old 6th Congressional District. It was a district considered among the most conservative in the country at the time and it was represented by Republican Dan Burton.

Now I live in the 7th Congressional District. It is one of the most liberal districts in Indiana. It is represented by Democrat André Carson, a politician on the opposite end of the spectrum from Burton.

I didn’t move. The districts did.

That’s information worth keeping in mind as state lawmakers talk about preserving “communities of interest” as they go through the redistricting process in the 2011 General Assembly. (For anyone who has followed a redistricting debate, “communities of interest” is the phrase most tossed around as lawmakers decide where to draw the lines that will affect lives, careers and public policy.)

Granted, the makeup of my community in Washington Township may have changed over the last two decades, but not enough to swing from one end of the political scale to the other. It’s the interest of the politicians that changed.

Redistricting takes place every 10 years using U.S. Census results gathered the year before. Redistricting will rival the budget as a top issue for state lawmakers in the session beginning in January and ending in April.

The last redistricting in 2001 brought about a circumstance where the community of interest represented by Carson meets the “compact” requirement that is always one of the stated goals. Carson has just one district office and every constituent in need of a face-to-face meeting can get there by driving no more than five or six miles.

Yet if you live in the 4th Congressional District represented by Steve Buyer (and soon to be represented by Todd Rokita), you may need to drive from Bedford to Plainfield to get to one of the two district offices. You may live more than 100 miles from the home of your congressman. Nothing compact there.

That happened because, no matter what the politicians say, their first goal in redistricting is to protect incumbents, both in Congress and in the General Assembly. It’s why Indiana has seen repeated competitive battles in just three congressional districts—the 2nd, 8th and 9th. The other six are safe districts created to make re-election for incumbents a foregone conclusion. (Only Mark Souder could mess that up.)

Republicans now control the Indiana House of Representatives, the state Senate, and the Governor’s Office. Those are three entities that determine where the new district lines are drawn. The GOP will have its way in redistricting. Gov. Mitch Daniels and legislative leaders are already promising to create “fair” districts, but fair is in the eye of the beholder.

It’s worth remembering that the last time Republicans had a death grip on redistricting was in 1981. They created a scheme in Marion and Allen counties found by the U.S. Supreme Court to violate the concept of one man and one vote. Of course, that ruling came after the districts were employed in three election cycles.

There are other ways to do this. Iowa, for example, takes the process out of the hands of lawmakers. The legislative staff draws new districts there with instructions to ignore party affiliations and incumbency. They do consider city and county boundaries, lines that are often ignored in Indiana. (For example, parts of Indianapolis are in the 4th, 5th and 7th districts.)

Indiana politicians, however, have never shown an interest in leaving the redistricting duty to others, and don’t look for it to happen anytime soon. The one factor that will temper the results this time is the level of Republican dominance. With six seats in Congress, 37 in the state Senate, and as many as 60 in the Indiana House, there are too many incumbents to protect.

If the prevailing theory is “to the winner go the spoils,” I understand.

If you want me to believe it’s fair, I need proof.•

Shella is WISH-TV Channel 8's political reporter and also hosts and produces the Emmy-nominated “Indiana Week in Review.” Shella worked in radio and TV in Iowa and Michigan after graduating from Saint Cloud State University in his native Minnesota. At WISH, he twice received the Sagamore of the Wabash award, and has won numerous journalism awards. Shella lives in Indianapolis with his wife, Connie. They have a daughter.•

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