Race, politics and maps

Of all the Democratic attacks on state Sen. Mark Hutchison’s lieutenant governor candidacy, the one that has the potential to sting most says he tried to limit the influence of Hispanic voters in Nevada’s elections.

Not only is Hutchison denying the allegation — mounted by the Nevada Democratic Party and Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor — he says the opposite is true.

It all dates to 2011, after the Nevada Legislature failed its constitutional duty to draw new district maps for Congress, Assembly and state Senate seats. A panel of special masters was given the job, and Hutchison was hired to represent Republicans.

He and the GOP argued for “packing” Hispanic residents into majority-minority districts, where he says it’s more likely they’d be able to elect fellow Hispanics to office. It’s hardly unprecedented: In 1990, Hispanic residents in Los Angeles County sued, claiming the board of county supervisors had carved their neighborhoods into three separate districts in order to dilute their voting strength. Federal courts agreed and held the maps violated voting rights laws. Once a new district was drawn, then-Los Angeles Councilwoman Gloria Molina was easily elected to the board, and she has held the seat ever since.

But Flores says the factors at play in Los Angeles 20 years before weren’t present in Las Vegas when Hutchison and the GOP supported “packing” districts three years ago. There was no demonstrated history of racial discrimination in redistricting, and there was no evidence that Hispanics couldn’t elect candidates of their choice to office because of racial bias in the electorate. (To be sure, the state had a Hispanic governor and attorney general, and no fewer than seven Hispanic lawmakers won seats in the 2010 election without the “packing” plan.)

“There’s plenty of evidence that Mark Hutchison and the Republican Party wanted to dilute the influence of Hispanic residents,” Flores said. “I believe it was a partisan goal that used a particular community of color to achieve that goal, which makes it wrong.”

Instead, Flores and her fellow Democrats argued to spread Hispanics among a variety of districts, spreading their voting influence across a wider swath of territory. But because Hispanics also tend to register with the Democratic Party, this approach would also serve to hold down Republican numbers and prevent the GOP from amassing their own electoral strongholds.

Hutchison said his goal was to help Hispanics get elected, in recognition of their growing numbers in Nevada. “The odds [of Hispanics electing a Hispanic representative] go up a lot” in a packing plan, Hutchison said. “I just don’t see how anyone can argue against that.”

Indeed, Hutchison points to Nevada’s 1st Congressional District as a prime example. About 43 percent of its population is Hispanic, but Hutchison wanted it even higher. If that had happened, he argues, Nevada would have elected its first Hispanic representative to the House in 2012. That person? Democratic state Sen. Ruben Kihuen. “If there had been a majority-minority district, I think he’d be in Congress right now,” Hutchison said.

The irony is delicious for Republicans, because the battle to represent the 1st District came down to Kihuen — who had heavy backing from the Hispanic community — and Democratic Rep. Dina Titus, who ultimately won. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid backed Kihuen, but Titus refused to yield. And Republicans got to sit back and watch the intense intraparty struggle, because Democrats outnumber them in the 1st District by more than 2 to 1.

Hutchison flatly denies any racial motive for pursuing a packed district. “I can tell you, that was not the reason I fought for the majority-minority district,” he said. But Democrats, with a promising Latina in the race, aren’t backing away from what they see as a potent issue. Party chairwoman Roberta Lange kicked off the Democrats’ convention in Reno last weekend with this line: “Mark Hutchison is an out-of-touch, partisan legal attack dog who has spent his career as a foot soldier for special-interests and tried to dilute minority representation in politics.”

Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist who blogs at SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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