November 22, 2012

Maine Voices: King could have real impact by pushing redistricting reform

Changing the way voting districts get carved up could help bring more Maine sense to Congress.

By Lee Burnett

Everyone's got a remedy for what ails Congress and an opinion on whether Angus King will make a difference.

My remedy involves Maine's diversity.

You're probably thinking: How could the whitest state in America offer a lesson in diversity? Well, we can. We may not be ethnically or racially diverse. But we sure are politically diverse.

Just ask a pollster. We give them fits. Maine is a hard state to poll because there are so many cross currents to navigate.

In Vermont, you could interview a handful of people in a single country store and you'd have a good sense of what the state thinks. If you did that in Maine, you'd know what a handful of people in a single country store think.

The Maine electorate is a hodgepodge.

We've got not only devout Democrats and Republicans, but also passionate Green Party and tea party types. And those are just the folks with declared political allegiances.

Most folks are unenrolled, which doesn't mean disengaged. It just means they're freelance political practitioners. The archetype is the town meeting iconoclast who turns the tide.

There is no typical Maine community. We've got mill towns as well as traditional fishing, farming and logging communities. We've also got beach towns, ski towns and college towns. And retirement communities, summer communities, suburbs and tribal villages.

Portland is a land unto itself -- urban, artsy, ethnic, young.

There is no dominant religion. The old-line Protestants and Franco Catholics are crowded by evangelicals, Christian home-schoolers, Jews and immigrant Muslims and Buddhists.

Mainers' relationship to government is -- no surprise -- schizophrenic. We're heavily dependent on federal transfer payments and the Pentagon budget, but we also fiercely defend local control, gun-owners' rights and landowner rights.

The least populated area of Maine is perhaps the most contested turf of all. Witness the battles over the North Woods National Park, the Plum Creek development, mountain-top wind development and access to the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. There is no neutral ground.

This is the Maine that politicians travel back and forth across to get elected. The experience can't help but sharpen them, broaden them. Political independence becomes both a survival skill and a habit of mind.

Compare Maine to the Illinois 4th Congressional District -- urban, low-income, Latino. The district actually comprises two ethnically similar neighborhoods on opposite sides of Chicago. One is heavily Puerto Rican, the other heavily Mexican.

Each neighborhood would be politically marginalized if put in a voting district with its immediate neighbors. But the neighborhoods are politically connected by a spaghetti strip of turf, making a Hispanic-majority congressional district. It has been represented by Democratic Rep. Louis Gutierrez since 1993. How independent do you think his voting record is?

The Illinois 4th district is a textbook case of gerrymandering, the time-honored practice of consolidating like-minded voters in districts to make safe seats for incumbents.

Once every decade, the parties meet to redraw congressional district lines to accommodate population changes. It's basically a voter swap shop. Officials in each party trade in undesirable voters for ones who think more like they do. It's supposed to be kept in line by the courts, but it goes on at the state level below most people's radar, and it's getting worse.

Maine is not immune to gerrymandering, it's just less effective because of our diversity.

I heard Angus King on the radio the other day. He was bullish on the various ideas for making Congress work, although he declined to say how he would vote on reforming the filibuster rule, addressing the Citizens United court decision or stopping members' paychecks if a budget isn't passed.

I doubt King's presence will have much bearing on any of those issues.

But he could make a difference championing an issue that currently has low visibility, but large potential for making Congress work better: redistricting reform.

How about taking redistricting out of the hands of politicians and putting it in the hands of appointed citizens?

We could use a few more politicians with an independent streak.

Lee Burnett of Springvale is a journalist and grant writer.

 

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