Judges' maps to produce changes at Legislature
ST. PAUL -- Five judges guaranteed there will be plenty of new faces at the Minnesota Capitol next year.
A five-judge panel Tuesday redrew legislative district maps, pairing 46 of the state's 201 lawmakers and creating 23 seats with no incumbent.
"That is a good positive thing for people who say they want to throw the incumbents out," said Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, the lead House redistricting Democrat.
The new maps, required every 10 years to comply with U.S. Supreme Court and Minnesota Constitution requirements of equal representations among districts, emphasize a continued movement of Minnesotans from rural areas to the suburbs, particularly outer-ring suburbs known as exurbs.
Nowhere was that change more evident than northern Minnesota's 5th District. Two Senate seats between Grand Rapids and Bemidji were combined into one. Also, four area state House seats were folded into two.
"There are six incumbents who are going to have to decide what is going to happen," Murphy said.
Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, said other rural areas suffered, too. The House redistricting chairwoman said she saw examples that judges "just grabbed a township here and a township there" to form a legislative district.
"It is a cost factor," Anderson said, pointing to added expenses of conducting elections in several jurisdictions. "It is also hard on citizens."
Voters identify themselves with the cities and counties where they live, Anderson added, but the judicial panel split too many communities.
In the northwest, Norman and Mahnomen counties long have been paired, but Anderson said she was surprised they now are split apart. As part of that decision, the judges put two Democratic incumbent representatives together in the area.
Anderson said the judges violated their own guidelines in several cases, such as avoiding splitting communities, but she would not go so far as to predict the maps would face court challenges.
Anderson said she did not know how the new maps would affect the political balance, saying that needed more study.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, was happy with the maps.
"I think we got a fair shake," he said about Democrats, who he predicted have a better chance now of taking back control of the Senate.
Four of the eight new Senate seats with no incumbents had candidates within an hour of when the maps were released, giving Bakk hope for a good election this year.
Not everyone likes the maps.
"I am consoling some members who are not very happy," Bakk said of those who are paired with other senators in new districts.
In coming days, some legislators and potential candidates may consider moving to a new district. A legislative candidate must live in the district at least six months before the Nov. 6 election.
Each of Minnesota's state Senate districts has about 79,000 people, twice that of a state House seat.
"The panel has established and utilized politically neutral redistricting principals that advance the interest of the collective public good and preserve the public's confidence and perception of fairness in the redistricting process," the judges wrote in their order.
The judicial panel's order said that it did not try to protect incumbent legislators: "Election districts do not exist for the benefit of any particular legislator."
Redistricting is more than political sport. The judges, given the task after the governor and legislators could not agree on new maps, made decisions that will go a long ways to determine how competitive races will be between usually conservative Republicans and mostly liberal Democrats.
Redistricting is required by two U.S. Supreme Court rulings and the Minnesota Constitution as a way to keep the same number of people in elected officials' districts.
The 2010 census, used to draw Tuesday's maps, showed a continued trend for rural Minnesotans to move to the suburbs. Many rural districts grew in physical size, while those around the Twin Cities shrunk.
Among those put in the same Senate districts are Sens. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, and Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids.
In the House, those lumped together in the same district include Reps. Larry Howes, R-Walker, and John Persell, DFL-Bemidji.
For the most part, the judges kept American Indian reservations from being split among more than one legislative district.
"In the northwest, the Red River Valley continues to be placed in as few legislative districts as is practicable," the judges wrote, keeping Moorhead and Detroit Lakes in a single Senate district.
The judges used Moorhead as an example of how they decided to draw lines.
Oakport Township is to be annexed by Moorhead, so the judges said they put the two together, even though that put more people in the House district than otherwise would be ideal. They said that was a good move so the city could be kept intact.
In eastern Washington County, the judges followed the wishes of residents from there who testified at public hearings and kept much of the area along the St. Croix River in one Senate district.