Now it gets nasty in Carson City

The election is over. Now the partisan bloodshed really begins.

Think I’m talking about Nevada’s budget? Please. The brewing battle between tax-hikers and spending-cutters will be a pillow fight compared with the prison riot that is redistricting.

Every 10 years, lawmakers go about the process of using census data to redraw legislative and congressional district boundaries. It is as raw an exercise of power as you will find in American politics.

It pits party against party and splits each caucus. It is where enemies are punished and allies are rewarded. It is the culmination of years of score-keeping. And it charts the state’s political course for the next decade.

Tuesday’s election results ensured that Democrats and Republicans will have to forge some sort of grand compromise. The GOP’s Brian Sandoval won the governor’s race. While Democrats retained control of both houses of the Legislature, Republican gains denied them veto-proof, two-thirds majorities.

Already, various players in Carson City are digging their trenches and climbing their hills to die for.

Sandoval says he’ll insist on balancing the number of registered voters in each legislative district. Currently, Republican-represented Assembly and Senate districts have, on average, at least 13,000 more voters than Democrat-represented districts.

Assembly District 11, won Tuesday by Las Vegas Democrat Olivia Diaz, is the state’s smallest with 8,800 registered voters. Assembly District 13, won by local Republican Scott Hammond, is the state’s biggest with more than 100,000 voters. The principle of “one person, one vote” in Carson City went out the window years ago — Diaz’s constituents have more than 10 times as much representation in Carson City as Hammond’s voters do.

The current boundaries, which were never intended to compensate for future population growth, are in clear violation of the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that all of a state’s legislative districts must have roughly equal populations. Balancing the districts will be to the benefit of the GOP and Nevadans in general, no matter how the borders are drawn.

Meanwhile, rural and Reno-area lawmakers want to expand the Legislature to ensure the areas outside Clark County retain reasonable, accessible representation. Because the Las Vegas Valley’s population has grown so rapidly over the past 10 years, Northern Nevada stands to be stripped of two or three Senate seats and three or four Assembly districts, which would be redrawn into Clark County.

That could leave a single Senate district and a single Assembly district to cover everywhere in Nevada outside the two urban areas — a lot of ground to cover for a part-time citizen legislator.

The Legislature’s Democratic leaders aren’t excited about an expanded Legislature because creating new seats in the North practically guarantees they’ll be won by Republicans. Shifting districts from the North to the South, however, brings the likelihood that those red seats can be turned blue.

The Nevada Constitution allows as many as 75 seats in the Legislature, meaning up to 12 new districts can be drawn, perhaps expanding Senate membership from 21 to 25, and the Assembly from 42 to 50.

Expanding the legislative branch amid a budget crisis — one that could lead to education cuts and tax increases — would be suicidal for lawmakers, given the political climate. But with so many of them entering their final session because of term limits, anything is possible.

The redrawing of Nevada’s congressional boundaries will be just as contentious because the two Democrats who’ll have the most say in creating them — Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford and Assembly Speaker John Oceguera — are making two seats for themselves.

Nevada is expected to gain a fourth seat in the House of Representatives through reapportionment, and Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., has all but declared that she’ll challenge Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., in 2012, rather than seek re-election in the 1st District. Horsford and Oceguera have ambitions to step into those two openings, so they’ll try to guarantee each other the smoothest path to election possible.

Whatever budget deal is reached will play into the redistricting fights, with party leaders using lawmakers’ future district boundaries as leverage for votes for or against tax increases. Those who don’t get with the program might find themselves running for re-election against a fellow incumbent — and having to build name recognition in neighborhoods they’ve never represented before.

The map they come up with, however many backs have to be stabbed to draw it, will be an improvement over today’s gerrymandered jigsaw puzzle. Consider that in the 2008 Obama tidal wave, Democrats flipped Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District and managed to gain just three seats in the Legislature. Last week’s Republican tsunami, which brought a historic shift in state capitols from coast to coast, merely won back Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District and those three legislative seats.

More competitive races will inevitably attract better candidates and more viable challenges to incumbents. Far fewer races will have predetermined outcomes. More voters will have better choices.

I’d rather see a nonpartisan commission handle Nevada’s redistricting. California’s voters just approved such a switch.

Will Nevada voters ever get that choice? I’m not holding my breath.

Glenn Cook ( is a Review-Journal editorial writer.


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