Wayne Aspinall, Stewart Udall

In this file photo, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, right, and Rep. Wayne Aspinall, D-Colo., look over a model of a saline conversion plant at a House Interior Subcommittee meeting on June 27, 1961, in Washington. 

By the time this column lands in front of some readers, Colorado could have a new set of congressional district maps to go with the state's new congressional district for next year's election.

The Independent Congressional Redistricting Commission established by voters in 2018 — at the same time they approved creation of a companion commission to redraw legislative lines — has been honing in on a final version since earlier this summer, with the latest draft debuting late on the afternoon of Sept. 23.

Following months of testimony and reams of submissions to the commission, its 12 members appear to be within sight of a map able to win approval from at least eight of them. They have until Sept. 28 to hit "Save" and send it in for review to the state Supreme Court a couple days later.

It's the state's first try at entrusting its congressional boundaries for the next 10 years to a group of citizens, albeit politically minded ones, selected in a complicated and partly random process from among hundreds of applicants that yielded four Democrats, four Republicans and four unaffiliated commissioners.

Previously, Colorado legislators attempted to decide where the congressional districts would go, though the process has landed in court nearly every time for the last 50 years, effectively handing the job over to judges. (Colorado's 100 legislative districts — 35 in the Senate and 65 in the House — have been drawn by a commission, though it was constituted differently than the one in place this year, without equal representation for residents who don't belong to one of the two major parties.)

Among the goals outlined in constitutional amendments Y and Z — keep communities of interest intact to the extent possible, including Hispanic and other minority voters, and urban and rural concerns, while trying not to fracture cities and counties. The districts are also supposed to be part of a map that has competitiveness in mind, though it's unclear whether that means maximizing the number of competitive districts or drawing a competitive statewide map.

One thing the state constitution specifically forbids commissioners from considering is the fate of incumbents, whether protecting the current office-holders or putting them in electoral harm's way.

(The legislative commission came up with an exception to that prohibition earlier this summer by requiring staff to make sure senators elected to serve through 2024 don't wind up in the same newly drawn district, which would create irreconcilable paradoxes due to the chamber's overlapping terms.)

But despite many a hue and cry from partisans of one or the other stripe, the congressional commission isn't supposed to take the electoral prospects of any of the seven-member House delegation into account, nor is it supposed to draw a district tailor-made for an aspiring member of Congress.

That hasn't stopped supporters and opponents of various politicians from demanding that individual lawmakers or their potential challengers face the wrath of the mapmakers. In particular, supporters and opponents of U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, the polarizing Republican from Garfield County, have been making plenty of noise on social media calling for her district to be configured to grease a path for re-election or make things really difficult, respectively.

A couple of drafts ago, the congressional map landed Boebert in the same district as U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, the Lafayette Democrat serving his second term, which briefly lit a fire under both politicians. While either of them would have been able to move a few miles into another district, the prospect of facing off next fall gave them both the chance to rally around the unfairness of it all — in Boebert's case — or the urgency of raising some money, as Neguse did.

The next iteration of the congressional districts separated the two, and the map released as this column is going to press kept them apart, Boebert in the Republican-leaning, mostly Western Slope 3rd Congressional District and Neguse in the Democratic-leaning, Boulder County-based 2nd Congressional District.

As it turns out, each of the state's incumbents somehow wound up in his or her current district, with the new 8th Congressional District falling in between the others, like a blank canvass ready to be painted by next year's candidates.

It turns out that Colorado's congressional incumbents have fared well when it comes to surviving redistricting over the decades, with just one exception.

Since 1971, when Colorado had but five congressional districts, through 1981's addition of a sixth seat and 2001's growth to seven districts, up to the most recent redistricting in 2011, none of the state's sitting House members have wound up in hostile districts or found themselves drawn together with another incumbent, as happens with some frequency in other states with more obviously partisan motives behind the maps.

Ernest Luning: "On the theory that it can help make sense of where you’re going if you have a clear picture of where you’ve been, here are some of the hallmarks of Colorado elections in the modern era — a grab bag of some of the mosts, firsts, and other superlatives, the purely political milestones that have defined the state’s contests for major statewide and congressional offices over the past 50 or so years."

Except the time 50 years ago, when the redrawn map spelled defeat for the Coloradan who had managed to carve out what could be the most congressional power ever wielded by a lawmaker from the state.

Democrat Wayne Aspinall, the country lawyer and one-time school teacher from Palisade, held office for 48 years and found his name on the ballot 40 times — from the school board to Palisade trustee, the state House, the state Senate and finally the U.S. House of Representatives — winning every election until the last one, in 1972.

That was the year the Western Slope-based 4th Congressional District he'd represented since 1952 was drastically redrawn by Colorado's Republican-led General Assembly.

Overnight, the district shifted from a seat that looked a lot like the current 3rd CD represented by Boebert — Western and Southern Colorado, anchored by population centers Grand Junction and Pueblo — to instead stretch across the northern half of the state, from Grand Junction to Nebraska and down the Front Range, including Fort Collins, Greeley and parts of Adams County.

Aspinall, who chaired the powerful House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee from 1959 to 1973, was the congressional gatekeeper for all things involving public lands and water.

"In the West, when you touch water, you touch everything," Aspinall famously said, and no one touched water like he did.

Born in 1896, Aspinall was the last member of Colorado's congressional delegation to have been born in the 19th century. A conservative Democrat, he supported developing the West's natural resources and didn't have much use for environmentalists, nor they for him, and in the end they would be his undoing.

Aspinall didn't realize how vulnerable he was after gaining all the new territory — far from the wide-open lands he had overseen for decades. Young environmentalist and anti-war activist Alan Merson challenged Aspinall in the 1972 Democratic primary, portraying the powerful committee chairman as a dinosaur, which helped reap the effects of the voting age dropping from 21 to 18 for the first time that election.

Merson, a law professor at the University of Denver, managed to accomplish a rarity in Colorado's political history, deposing a House incumbent in a primary — it wouldn't happen again for another 48 years, until Boebert ousted five-term U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton in last year's GOP primary — but ran into the new congressional district's more Republican-leaning electorate in November.

Republicans had basically given up on challenging Aspinall over the years so hadn't intended to contest the race and nominated Jim Johnson, a liberal Republican who also opposed the Vietnam War.

After he surprised everyone by winning a seat in Congress, longtime GOP veteran Dick Wadhams recently recalled, Johnson became a "thorn in the side of Republicans" in Colorado.

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