Pack 'em or crack 'em?
That's one question Nevada lawmakers face when it comes to redistricting and the state's expanding Hispanic population, now a powerful political force here and nationwide.
Latinos, now 26.5 percent of Nevada's population, want their own congressional district as the state gains a fourth House seat. That would pack Latinos together, giving them a better chance to elect Nevada's first Hispanic congressman.
Or lawmakers could continue to split Hispanics among the newly drawn House districts. That would make Latinos swing voters in each, giving Democrats an edge over Republicans, especially for the three seats in populous Southern Nevada.
That may explain why Democrats in the Legislature -- many elected thanks to Latinos -- are skeptical about creating a concentrated "minority-majority" congressional district, and why Republicans are all for it.
"We want a Hispanic district. Why not give it to them?" state Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, asked recently.
Yet even state Sen. Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, a Latino whose district is 75 percent Hispanic by design, isn't sure about drawing a congressional district with as many Latinos as legally possible.
"I think we need to do whatever's fair," said Denis, who previously served in an Assembly district formed to favor Hispanics. "The emphasis should be on representing the entire community. At the same time, you don't want to split up the Hispanic community."
What to do about Latinos is one of the many issues lawmakers must deal with as they redraw the political map to evenly divide the population among electoral districts after the 2010 census showed Nevada has 2.7 million people. They also must decide whether to expand the Legislature beyond 21 state Senate and 42 Assembly seats to account for record growth in Clark County -- now 1.9 million people -- or to shift one state Senate seat and one Assembly seat from North to South.
On Saturday, lawmakers held the last of four scheduled public hearings on redistricting in Las Vegas, drawing more than 50 people. The others were in Carson City, Fallon and Reno.
Several interest groups presented proposed maps, including one that likely wouldn't pass legal or political muster because it would create four new vertical congressional districts stretching from North to South.
Now begins the highly partisan work of redrawing the lines, done largely behind closed doors -- although state Sen. David Parks, D-Las Vegas, chairman of the Senate Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections, said there may be more hearings after lawmakers roll out proposed computerized maps.
The legal goal is to ensure that each representative has roughly the same number of constituents, allowing each voter equal power at the ballot box. The political goal is to rejigger the lines to protect incumbents from defeat by making their districts safer -- whether more Republican or more Democrat -- and to maneuver for electoral gains until the next census, in 2020.
Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, the state's first Hispanic governor, has said he would veto any redistricting plan the Democratic-led Legislature passes if he thinks it's unfair.
"It'll probably all end up in court," Assemblyman Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, chairman of the Assembly Legislative Operations and Elections Committee handling redistricting, has said. "But we'll do our best to make it fair."
Segerblom and Parks have both said they don't know if it's possible or wise to create a minority-majority Hispanic district. Expert mapmakers, however, have shown the 1st Congressional District can be shaped to make it 50 percent Latino, including children too young to vote and an unknown number of illegal immigrants.
Among Hispanics, it's not a question of political affiliation. Tibi Ellis, chairwoman of the Hispanic GOP caucus, and Fernando Romero, a Democrat and Latino activist, are allies in pushing for a Hispanic House seat.
'A community of interest'
"We should be counted as a community of interest," Romero said before the hearing. "Children are counted. Adults are counted. Senior citizens are counted. What that translates to in my mind is that Hispanics count."
Ellis said she suspects Democrats might not like the idea of stronger, focused Hispanic representation because the party fears losing the Latino vote if it fails to deliver as promised on immigration reform and other issues. She noted that Hispanics often vote as a bloc -- for Barack Obama in 2008, but also for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004.
"There's no guarantee that Hispanics are going to stay Democrat," Ellis said. "And Republicans, we're always working to recapture the Hispanic vote. I'm not sure we've done a good job of that in the past."
Now, the 1st Congressional District is 37.2 percent Hispanic. The 3rd Congressional District is 23 percent Hispanic. And the 2nd Congressional District, covering all of Nevada except Clark County, is 20.4 percent Hispanic. All three districts are overpopulated after a decade of growth, especially the 3rd Congressional District, which is the largest in the nation at 1,043,855 people.
After reapportionment, each of the state's four congressional districts should have 675,138 residents.
Former Rep. Dina Titus, a Democrat who served in the state Senate for 20 years and went through redistricting sessions in 1991 and 2001, said that dealing with minorities usually comes down to a decision of "packing them or cracking them" in redistricting parlance. She said it doesn't surprise her that Democrats would want to keep Hispanics spread out because they're integrated in the community. That also would make it easier to craft three Southern Nevada districts that favor Democrats.
"Democrats talk a lot about drawing three Democratic districts, but I'd be surprised if the governor goes for that," said Titus, who teaches political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and may run for Congress again. "There are 100 maps out there, but none of them will pass unless there's some deal."
Titus and other experts predict the new congressional map for the 2012 election will include two safe Democratic seats in Southern Nevada -- the 1st and the new 4th -- and two that lean Republican. The GOP seats would be the 2nd Congressional District covering Northern Nevada and GOP Rep. Joe Heck's 3rd Congressional District seat, which he'll likely want to keep.
Contact Laura Myers at lmyers @reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.