smoke-filled back room

It’s time to bring back the smoke-filled backroom. Transparency is way overrated when the alternative is politics. That’s the feeling I get looking at the new allegedly final congressional maps for Colorado’s soon-to-be eight seats in Congress.

If the future of our state and nation are on the line, then we need dealmakers more than ever. I’m not saying that’s pretty or pleasing. I’m saying it’s a fact.

The proposed Colorado congressional map proves it.

Three years ago the state’s voters overwhelmingly passed amendments Y and Z to break the partisan stranglehold on governing. “Safe” districts grant outsized control to parties over their officeholders, who are effectively seated by the nomination when the general election is a foregone conclusion.

Back in the old days, when the rooms were scented with Marlboros and Lucky Strikes, something meaningful was accomplished, good or bad. Because power brokers could make the deals necessary to get something done.

Endless public hearings and political posturing makes a nice “listening to the voters” malarkey, but it usually serves up a picnic’s worth of nothing burgers because of posturing and pleasing too many tastes.

For months the commission listened to testimony from organizations and everyday Coloradans, based on which party has the better chance of winning if the boundary lands here rather than there.

None of the incumbent members of the delegation, however, will lose sleep over the map sent up to the state Supreme Court for review, however.

District 3 on the western side of the state, served by a Republican for a decade, still leans right toward Rep. Lauren Boebert. She is more likely to lose next year because of her legislative ineptitude and steadily unfolding scandals than for the shape of her district.

District 4 on the east side of the state, will continue to be represented by former state GOP chair Ken Buck.

Likewise, Republicans can count on CD5, the El Paso County-centric district that sends Doug Lamborn back to Washington just about every time I hear somebody say he's in trouble. Lamborn is the Terminator of Colorado politics.

District 1 (Diana DeGette), District 2 (Joe Neguse) and District 7 (Ed Perlmutter) are incumbent friendly. If the lines hold, Rep. Jason Crow will have a safer seat in CD6, Colorado’s swingiest district since the last reapportionment.

The new 8th Congressional District in north metro Denver, a product of population growth, so it's a debatable district.

Dave Wasserman, the U.S. House editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, noted on Twitter that if the district had existed in 2016, Donald Trump would have won by 2 percentage points. Last year, Joe Biden would have won by 5.

If Republicans could take that seat, Colorado’s House delegation would be dead-even, 4 to 4. 

What’s competitive isn’t always fair, however. 

Biden won Colorado by 13.5 points,  a difference of 440,045 voters, the largest margin for a presidential race in Colorado since Ronald Reagan won by 28% in 1984.

Colorado has 125,115 more actively voting Democrats than Republicans. The left controls every statewide executive office, both chambers of the General Assembly and both U.S. Senate seats. There's no denying that this is a blue state now.

This, in fact, is a process that Democratic majorities in the legislature would have controlled, if Y and Z had never happened.

Adding to the imbalance, 1 in 5 Coloradans identify as Latino or Hispanic. Not having even 1 in 8 districts that assures a chance of representation is unfair — and unconstitutional, to boot.

The state constitution lists competitiveness as sixth among the factors mapmakers should consider.

First is ensuring an equal population. Second is that the district lines are contiguous. Check and check.

The third is ensuring fairness by complying with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't.

When I talked to former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, a mapmaker under the old system, about the new map the day it came out, he said Colorado’s newest district has the potential to pick a Latino representative. The outcome, though, would be less about the number of registered voters and more about turnout, which is a problem for the parties to figure out.

To be fair, however, the commission needed to  consider equal voting strength, not a perpetually motivated right against a disinterested left, or vice versa. They could have determined that by doing a racially polarized voting analysis, a common tool to measure bloc strength. They chose not to. 

Here's betting the Supreme Court sends the map back to the commission with a note to try harder.

The ballot questions three years ago were sold on the premise that drawing the maps out in public would yield a better result than the smoke-filled backrooms. Yet, the commissioners' stickiest legal questions, the stuff that mattered most, were deliberated with lawyers in "executive session," which is government-speak for "it's none of your business."

They were still a little smoky, then, when they recessed to the back room.

I think my friend Shawn Martini over at the Colorado Farm Bureau was right when he told me to be patient with this process; just because commissioners fumbled this map doesn’t mean future commissioners will, too. 

All Colorado gave up this time around was the room, because the politics are as cloudy as ever.

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