Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Losing a seat

Next Week's Bad News

Iowa gets bad news next week. It'll be no surprise; we've been expecting it at least 10 years.

Tuesday is the day the Census Bureau releases its biggest piece of data, its constitutional reason for existence: the population totals by state and its partner, the congressional apportionment by state. And absolutely every indication is that Iowa loses a seat in Congress, dropping from five House members to four.

Jeff Morrison, at a site mostly devoted to the state highway system, has done the great public service of putting together a one-stop page of all Iowa's district maps back to statehood. What's remarkable to me as an Eastern Iowan is how rarely Johnson and Linn counties have been in the same district. We were separated from 1862 to 1992.

This was Iowa's map for 45 years back in the glory days, 1886 to 1931. In the Gay 90s we elected eleven congressmen, all Republicans, led by Dubuque's David Henderson, Iowa's only Speaker of the House. He was a low-key figure sandwiched between two of the most powerful speakers ever, Thomas "Czar" Reed and Joe Cannon.

Some of those districts were a little goofy looking. The one county wide, eight county long purple one was Henderson's. And that 11 county green one along the southern border looks a lot like Kim Reynolds' old Senate district, where we'll be seeing that January 4 special election.

(That long skinny Henderson district is nothing compared to the spiders, barbells, headphones and earthworms they draw next door in Illinois.)

Since then we've lost an average of a seat every couple decades, usually to someplace like Arizona, as the American population moves south and west. There's even a personal symbol of our loss of congressional clout: Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, of recent stop START fame, is the son of an Iowa congressman. One could argue -- I did -- that in a small way the younger Kyl, by moving to Arizona, cost his father his seat in 1972.

So we'll know what the big bad news will be next week. But there's 154 more pieces of good, bad, or meh news to be delivered next spring, when the super-secret Legislative Service Bureau releases The Map.

Redistricting is the ultimate in inside baseball. The average voter has little clue what legislative district they're in, but it's life and death to the elected officials and candidates. The Map is more important to the final outcome than the campaign, the candidates, the economy, anything.

Iowa's process is often cited as a national model: The LSB draws The Map in secret, and supposedly they have no idea where any incumbent lives or the partisan lean of any place. It's hard for me to imagine that combination: the skill set to balance population and geography, combined with the complete ignorance of the underlying politics. In my experience, anyone smart enough to grasp The Map is also political enough to understand The Implications. Maybe that's just the crowd I run with.

Once The Map is released, legislators get just an up or down vote and the governor signs or vetoes. Not until three plans have been rejected -- which hasn't happened in the three cycles we've done it this way -- do the politicians get to directly tweak the map.

Yet there's no way to completely remove politics from a process so inherently political. The state legislative map is a zero sum game. There are individual winners and losers, but we come out with the same 100 House seats and 50 Senate seats.

The congressional map, this time, is another matter. We lose one of our musical chairs, and one of our five congressmen (all men, still, just us and Mississippi...) will try to sit down and land on his rump.

My experience, from watching two of these districting cycles, is that things don't break out along the usual lines. It's not a simple donkey vs. elephant fight. It's an urban vs. rural fight and a What's In It For Me fight.

The public and press are focused on the congressional map, in part because the districts are big and easy to comprehend. But the public and the press and the congressmen aren't the ones who decide. The legislators are. And they aren't focused on the congressional map -- they're looking at their own seats. (In this case, "seats" meaning both the district kind and the backside kind.) The maps are a package, so they can't approve a congressional map while rejecting a legislative map.

It's almost pointless to speculate on what The Map will look like. No one envisioned the 1990s Des Moines to Council Bluffs turf that eventually cost Neal Smith his job, or the suburban hook and eastern panhandle that put Warren and Allamakee counties together in Tom Latham's current territory.

But obsessives will obsess anyway, so here's my Top Ten list of things to consider.
1) Nothing can be done about Steve King. There's that many Republicans in that end of the state, and Republican primary voters like what Steve sells. He's also too far away from the others to get paired.

2) Sixteen years after he left the state senate for Congress, how many of Leonard Boswell's old friends are still under the dome in Des Moines?

3) Latham and Boswell live in adjacent counties, Story and Polk. Of course, both have moved there since getting elected.

4) People don't care when politicians move. Neither Boswell or Jim Leach paid any price for it in 2002, and no one associates the Vilsacks with Henry County anymore.

5) But people do care about quitters, and Mariannette Miller-Meeks just took a high profile state job. (So has every other defeated Republican candidate in the state, with the singular and very notable exception of Bob Vander Plaats.)

6) Scott plus Johnson plus Linn plus Dubuque plus Black Hawk equals too many people.

7) Black Hawk and Story have not been together since we went from two districts to six in 1862.

8) Neither have Black Hawk and Linn. But there's a first time for everything.

9) The only way Mike Gronstal accepts a Loebsack-Braley pair is if that bad congressional map is attached to a solid gold state senate map.

10) If so, Mt. Vernon is two miles outside of Johnson County and we like professors here.
All other things being equal, my guess is a "fair fight" pairing of one Republican and one Democrat, like we saw with Dave Nagle and Jim Nussle in 1991. I'm predicting Tom Latham and Leonard Boswell, with retirement in the mix.

The placement of fast-growing, Republican leaning Dallas County, now in Latham's turf, could be decisive. If Dallas goes west it just pads Steve King's margin, but if it goes east it spells trouble for Boswell.

No comments: