August 23, 2011

MIKE TIPPING: Lewiston/Auburn would be big loser in GOP redistricting plan

Mike Tipping

A meeting will be held this morning to allow public comment on competing redistricting plans put forward by Maine's two major political parties.

The maps being discussed are meant to redraw Maine' congressional districts in order to account for a relative increase in population in the 1st District compared to the 2nd District.

The Democratic Party has put forward two plans. The first proposal would change only the town of Vassalboro from the 1st to the 2nd, allowing for minimal disruption for Maine voters and closing the population gap between the districts down to only 11 voters.

The Republican plan is much more radical. It would erase the political boundaries that have been in place in Maine since 1961, affecting seven counties, changing 139 municipalities and displacing almost 360,000 voters from their current districts.

The Republicans' stated reason for the change is to make the populations in the two districts as close as possible. Their new map would mean a difference of only a single voter.

Democrats countered with an updated plan that would keep disruption to a minimum -- swapping seven towns, maintaining all current county splits and bringing the population difference down to just three voters.

But let's not kid ourselves. Those margins don't actually mean anything.

With the maps being based on population numbers from last year's census, there's really no difference among one, three and 11. It's likely that enough voters already have moved since the count to make those small differences meaningless.

Even if it were accurate, a two-voter difference certainly doesn't seem like enough reason to change the districts of voters in seven counties.

Obviously, it's not the real reason.

The real reason Republicans are proposing their changes is not equity but partisan gain. The redrawn Republican map would move a large number of Democrats from the 2nd District to the 1st, and a similar number of Republicans from the 1st to the 2nd, giving the GOP a much better shot at winning an election in the 2nd.

With Republican Senate President Kevin Raye likely to offer a strong challenge to 2nd District Congressman Mike Michaud in 2012, this isn't just an academic discussion for the GOP. If they can pass their plan, they'll have a real shot at grabbing the seat just a few months from now.

Political commentators from across the state have discussed many of the side-effects of this attempted political land grab. They've noted that, in addition to changing the representation of hundreds of thousands of Mainers, it would haphazardly divide regions of the state and communities of common interests.

Major industries such as shipbuilding and papermaking also would be split across districts rather than having a more dedicated representative. Topsham and Brunswick would be divided, even as they attempt to work together on federal base redevelopment.

Much also has been made of the fact that U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, with her home in North Haven, would have her district moved out from under her.

But one of the biggest effects of the Republican plan hasn't been discussed nearly enough: The relative political influence of Lewiston/Auburn and surrounding municipalities.

Lewiston/Auburn is the largest urban area in the 2nd District, and Androscoggin County voters often hold the balance of power in congressional elections.

The historical examples are numerous. In 1972, for example, it was the inroads that Republican Bill Cohen made into traditionally Franco-American communities in Lewiston/Auburn that led to his winning the 2nd District seat and launching his national political career.

In 2002, when Michaud and Raye last faced each other for the newly open seat, Michaud won by 9,000 votes. His margin in Androscoggin made up more than half that total. With that vote, Michaud became the first Franco-American from Maine to be elected to federal office.

Moving Lewiston/Auburn into the 1st District wouldn't just divide the cities' residents from culturally similar areas in Northern Maine; it would subsume the area's influence to that of Greater Portland.

Rather than being a center of political power and, increasingly, a crucial swing vote in the 2nd District, Lewiston/Auburn would become just another Democratic area in the 1st.

Since the beginning of the current era of competitive politics in Maine in the 1950s, Mainers of French heritage and especially those living in the Twin Cities have closely guarded their political influence, seeing it as a bulwark against disrespect and discrimination.

It will be interesting to see if the hearing today brings out some of those arguments and emotions.

Mike Tipping is a political junkie. He writes the Tipping Point blog on Maine politics at DownEast.com, his own blog at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People's Alliance and the Maine People's Resource Center. He's @miketipping on Twitter. Email to writebacktomike@gmail.com

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