GRAND JUNCTION — Denver health-care executive Kent Thiry says he doesn’t want to crash Colorado’s two-party system, but he wants to preserve the state’s engine of democracy with some lubrication and fine-tuning.
“Just like an engine needs oil and every now and then, so does our democracy need refining,” he said Saturday at the Spring Conference of Club 20, the Western Colorado coalition of government, business and community interests. “Right now our democracy needs some serious oil. Our government services and operations are falling behind in some ways in some areas.”
The CEO of Denver-based DaVita Inc., a Fortune 500 corporation that provides dialysis treatments and other medical services, was talking about government gridlock behind these stalled engines of democracy.
Thiry is chairman of a coalition of business and civic leaders who want to reconfigure how the state draws congressional and legislative boundaries.
The way it’s done now is that the legislature redraws the districts using census data every 10 years. That gives the party with a majority in the statehouse at that time tremendous power to shape boundaries that help its candidates, which attracts lawsuits and acrimony from the minority party and outside interest groups.
The result can be gerrymandering, an illegal but tough-to-prove way of drawing boundaries to pool or diffuse certain voters to help or hurt one party against the other.
Last week, Thiry’s Fair Districts Colorado joined with a more liberal group called People Not Politicians joined forces to seek a measure for the November ballot to allow voters to decide how the boundaries should be drawn
The proposed system would expressly outlaw gerrymandering and maximize the competitiveness of districts between parties and unaffiliated candidates.
The commission would be held to account for respecting federal voting rights laws, as well as preserve “communities of interest,” such as predominantly ethnic neighborhoods and boundaries for municipalities and counties, as often as possible.
Supporters think that would attract more moderate candidates and result in government that serves communities instead of majority-party interests.
Thiry registered as a Republican last year as he pondered making a run for governor, then switched back to unaffiliated in December after he decided against running.
“Democracy is and always will be a full-contact sport, but it’s not a spectator sport,” he told the Club 20 crowd Saturday afternoon at the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel Grand Junction.
Thiry said voters in November could create commissions that include one-third of its members who are unaffiliated (the same number as major parties), with non-partisan staff drawing up the maps that have to be approved by a super-majority of the commission.
Voters also would clearly outlaw gerrymandering and maximize the competitiveness of districts between parties and unaffiliated candidates.
Supporters think that ultimately fairer districts will attract more moderate candidates who answer to a broader base of voters.
Thiry said proponents have three goals:
Colorado’s electorate is almost evenly divided between registered Republican, Democratic and unaffiliated voters. Those who don’t choose a party are the state’s largest bloc.
The state has one Democrat and one Republican serving in the U.S. Senate, Thiry noted.
As few as six of the 65 seats in the House, however, could be considered competitive between Republicans and Democrats, Thiry said.
“For more than 90 percent to be non-competitive,” he said Saturday, “the words and the music do not match … That is something man-made.”
Some districts are naturally suited to support one party over the other, because of their rural, urban and military constituencies tend to lean one way or the other, Thiry noted. But he added that the thumb of government shouldn’t be on those electoral scales through gerrymandering.
Typically, te majority of voters aren’t involved in the decision on who runs to represent them. Primaries have lower turnouts than general elections. That means a minority of voters, in practice, elects most officeholders, usually the candidate who most loudly espouses partisan views favorable to those mostly likely to vote in the primary.
Thiry led the charge two years ago to pass a ballot measure that allows unaffiliated voters to participate in the primaries.
He said Saturday that the redistricting effort is not anti-party or anti-incumbent. Voters are leaving parties and losing faith in democracy over the political finagling under the current system, he said.
“It’s very much to increase the representation of the people within the parties so they can, in fact, have some influence and get more done,” Thiry told Club 20.
Elected officials are encumbered to accept deals that suit their parties more than their personal principles or their districts in order to avoid a primary, he said.
“This is allowing the people we already elected to govern,” Thiry said.
He said the idea is much broader than party politics.
“How do we keep Colorado being Colorado?” he asked. ” … How can we create a shared prosperity, how can we preserve our way of life, how can we avoid having the alleged success of population and economic growth in much of the state damage the quality of our lives and our natural appreciation of the lands, how do we sustain our robust but imperfect sense of community?”