New maps force House Democrats to move up or out

Democrats in Indiana's House of Representatives facing dim prospects of re-election are making some tough choices, with many opting to either retire or run for higher office.

Rep. Jeb Bardon, D-Indianapolis, decided he would retire rather than run against Rep. Vanessa Summers, D-Indianapolis, after he was drawn into a battle with her.

Rep. Scott Reske, D-Pendleton, decided to launch a longshot bid for Indiana's 5th Congressional District seat after he was drawn into a tough race with Rep. Robert Cherry, R-Greenfield.

Two other House Democrats—Craig Fry of Mishawaka and Dennis Tyler of Muncie—will give up their seats if they win races for mayor in November.

It's all part of the fallout of new legislative maps drawn by House Republicans earlier this year, which seem all but certain to shore up their majorities in the chamber after next year's elections. The new boundaries also might give them a supermajority of members, enough to overturn a veto should a Democrat be elected governor.

"I was very bothered by the fact they stuck it to me when it came time for them to draw the map," Bardon said.

Redistricting battles are almost always politically contentious throw-downs between the dominant party and the minority party. The roles were reversed when Indiana's House maps were drawn 10 years ago by House Democrats. Those maps helped Democrats control the House for all but two years of the last decade.

Rep. Jeff Espich, R-Uniondale, said the new Republican-drawn maps were put together based on population movement and created similar problems for Republican incumbents.

He would know: He was pulled into a race with Rep. Dan Leonard, R-Huntington.

"In some fashion, one of us will not serve in the House, and I'm sure that probably doesn't make either one of us happy," said Espich, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. "I wish it weren't the way it is at the moment."

Espich noted that protecting incumbents is not one of the criteria mandated by federal law when state lawmakers are drawing new districts every 10 years.

In all, House Republicans drew 20 incumbents into battles with each other. Six Democrats were pulled into intraparty battles, as were six Republicans. Another four Democrats and four Republicans were pulled into cross-party matchups.

Not every Democrat is shying away from the fight. Rep. Peggy Welch, D-Bloomington, was pulled into a contest with Rep. Ralph Foley, R-Martinsville. Welch had pondered running for Indiana's 9th Congressional District seat but opted instead to seek re-election to Indiana's House of Representatives.

"They gave her a cross to bear, but she's going to pick it up and carry it all the way," said House Democratic Leader Pat Bauer, D-South Bend.

Bauer is traversing the state to recruit potential Democratic candidates to run for the newly open seats, as well as for 10 entirely new districts created. Despite the long odds, he's still optimistic.

He acknowledged that the new districts "are a little tougher under several circumstances."

"I do think they're winnable," he said.

Still, many in his caucus are facing up to political reality that they're unlikely to return to the House after 2012. Reske said his new district was one of many factors that spurred him to run for Congress in Indiana's solidly Republican 5th District, now represented by Rep. Dan Burton.

The decision to retire was bittersweet for Bardon.

Bardon said he was one of a handful of Democrats to break party ranks in 2006 and vote with House Republicans to support a bill that would have established an independent commission to draw the new maps.

"In terms of reform, the conversation has always been: 'De-politicize. Let's bring an independent group in that creates districts that are more competitive," Bardon said.

But when House Republicans had the chance to hand control over to a non-partisan panel, they opted for the old, partisan system they sought to dismantle in 2006, Bardon said.

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