It goes by the super-bland title of “redistricting.” Yet this ultimate political insiders' game of backroom wheeling and dealing can draw prayers from nuns and change the course of elections.
The chance to help friends and hammer enemies comes around every 10 years as district lines for Congress and the General Assembly are revised to reflect population shifts revealed by census data. And it's happening again in Connecticut right now.
“It may pose as ‘one man, one vote,'” says former state Democratic Chairman John Droney, “but it's very political.”
Politicians usually dismiss conspiracy theories about power brokers deciding the fate of us ordinary folk. In this case, according to the pols, that's a very accurate image. “What your readers suspect is true,” says Droney.
Richard Foley, a former Republican state chairman, recalls one redistricting session 20 years ago when he, Droney and a couple of other insiders sat around a Hartford bar with “beer bottles holding the maps down.” Droney says there was also “a bottle of Jack Daniels and half a carton of Marlboros” on that table where they “cut up the state” and changed Connecticut's political landscape.
Occasionally, somewhat less gritty influences manage to make an impression. Former state House Minority Leader Bob Ward was on the 2000-01 redistricting committee. He remembers getting a note taken from a Roman Catholic church bulletin board in New Britain. It was written by nuns “who were praying their parish would remain within the district” of their long-time state representative.
“New Britain [political boundaries] had to be moved around a bit,” says Ward, now one of Connecticut's state auditors. Several key members of that redistricting committee — including Ward — were Catholics themselves, and they “agreed we could honor that request.”
“We weren't in the business of answering prayers,” Ward says. “That's God's business. But we were able to accommodate [the nuns'] concerns.”
These redistricting committees comprise top General Assembly leaders or their hand-picked loyalists.
Their job is about accommodating some people, usually incumbent politicians, and occasionally ending the political careers of their enemies.
Twisting boundaries to help or hurt one pol or another is known as “gerrymandering.” The word was coined back in 1812 when a particularly serpentine political district was created to help Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry. A cartoonist put a salamander's head on one end of the district's outline and labeled it a “gerrymander.”
On Connecticut's current congressional map, Democratic U.S. Rep. John Larson's 1st District reaches out great claw-like appendages, one stretching into the northwest hills, another curling around to the south. At the center was Republican U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson's hometown of New Britain. In 2001, population declines meant Connecticut was losing one of six congressional seats. Johnson's 6th District and the 5th District of U.S. Rep. James Maloney, a Danbury Democrat, were merged. Each of these incumbents tried to stuff the new district full of their favorite voters. What remained was Larson's oddly shaped district.
Political districts (and careers) can also be dismembered, like with what happened to Republican state Rep. Peter Lerner's district back in 1990-91. Lerner was a liberal type representing suburbs northwest of New Haven. He'd pissed off his House Republican colleagues, Foley says, by “voting against us” on routine procedural crap.
“If you screw around, you get screwed around with,” Foley says. So Lerner's district got hacked into pieces and his political career folded.
With more precise data about who lives where and how they vote, shifting boundaries to help or hurt someone is a bit more difficult, pols say. If you're too blatant about it, there's the chance of a legal challenge that could end with a judge setting new district lines — which is what the insiders don't want.