Everyone expected it to be the summer’s hottest political drama. But as of this week, the tortured meanderings of the Congressional Reapportionment Commission have descended into theater of the absurd.

Consider this account from Michael Friedman, the chairman and lone independent on the 15-member commission, of what transpired prior to Tuesday’s three-hour public hearing on Maine’s future congressional boundaries:

“Yesterday (Monday), I was told during discussions with the Republican side that they did have a consensus plan that they may or may not present,” Friedman said. “Then I heard subsequently last night that the likelihood was that they would present it.”

Big news! Sounds like the breakthrough we’ve all been waiting for … do go on!

“Then when I came in this morning,” Friedman said, “I was told that it definitely would not be presented.”

Cue the lead balloon.

Just when the commission’s Republicans and Democrats were supposed to be tweaking their scripts and getting on with what’s left of Maine’s already-too-short summer, they now find themselves back where they started: huddled on opposite sides of the stage, launching volley after volley of talking points at one another.

Cue the rotten tomatoes.

To recap: As of late last week, the Democrats and Republicans were light-years apart in their court-ordered effort to bring Maine’s two congressional districts into population parity.

The Democratic plans couldn’t be simpler: The first transferred the small Kennebec County town of Vassalboro (population: 4,340) from the 2nd District into the 1st District, thus shrinking the current imbalance from 8,867 people down to 11.

The Dems’ second plan would throw a handful of other Kennebec County towns into the mix, reducing the disparity to three people.

The GOP plan is, ahem, more far-reaching: Reduce the districts’ disparity to just one person by moving Oxford, Franklin and most of Androscoggin County (including Lewiston and Auburn) into the 1st District while moving a sizeable chunk of the midcoast (including Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree’s hometown of North Haven) into the 2nd District.

The Republicans, apparently aware that their shift of 360,000 Mainers from one district to the other might come back to bite them (see: next election), appeared ready to dicker late last week.

Friday afternoon, they called in fellow commission member Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, and showed him a new plan: Confine all the changes to Kennebec County, with the eastern half (including Waterville and Winslow) going to the 1st District and the more rural western half going to the 2nd District.

“Obviously, we were pleased,” said Goodall. “We thought that was a reasonable approach that we could work with and come to consensus on in the very near future with a few changes.”

Wrong answer, at least according to the Republicans.

“It was referred to as a ‘starting point,’ ” said Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden. “When it was referred to as a starting point, there was a huge sense of frustration with the Republicans.”

Meaning?

“It’s time to step back,” Plowman said. “That plan is off the table.”

Two things are worth noting as we pause for yet another intermission and the plot, alas, once again thickens.

First, while all the partisan finger-pointing was going on Tuesday, almost 50 Maine citizens – some political types, some not – took turns at the podium to throw in their three minutes on what needs to happen here. The vast majority lambasted the original Republican plan and pleaded for something closer to what the Democrats propose.

Never mentioned was the new-and-improved GOP plan because, well, nobody in the audience appeared to even know about it.

Can we say “participative democracy?”

Second, this is starting to look like one of those bar brawls where, when it’s finally over, nobody can quite remember why they kept fighting so hard for so long.

There now is, after all, a painfully obvious way for all concerned to gracefully exit the stage.

All the Republicans need to do is stop bickering among themselves – an all-too-common sideshow these days – long enough to put the so-called “Kennebec Plan” back on the table where it belongs.

And the Democrats, meanwhile, need to accept that they no longer control the Legislature – where the new lines ultimately will be drawn – and thus they’re in no position to hold out for “a few changes.”

Sure, the “Kennebec Plan” means a net gain of some 3,000 Republican voters in the 2nd District. And sure, that’s not the best of news for Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud as he sets his sights on a sixth term in 2012.

But seriously, loyal Democrats, do you truly expect this to end with no advantage whatsoever to the party in power? (See: past Democrat-controlled reapportionments.)

Which brings us back to Chairman Friedman, who holds the swing vote in the commission’s final recommendation to the Legislature – one the Republican majority ignores, if it comes to that, at its own political peril.

“Nobody knows what I’m going to do,” said Friedman as both sides retreated to their caucuses Tuesday. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Still, Friedman – who’s well cast here in the role of mediator – hasn’t given up hope quite yet. Nor therefore, restless audience, should we.

“I’m not convinced in my own mind that we still can’t get consensus over the next three or four days,” Friedman said. “I think that from my own view … a combination of two of the plans might work.”

Cue the standing ovation.

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]