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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006

Proposed House redistricting plan means big changes for Windham County

Incumbents Deen, Moran, Partridge would lose their current districts in 2012 elections

With additional reporting from Anne Galloway and Eli Sherman from VtDigger.

Several current House districts in Windham County could be reconfigured in a proposed redistricting map under consideration by the Apportionment Board.

Last Thursday, the board voted 4-3 to recommend a new map of legislative districts for House representatives that creates 138 new single-member districts.

There are currently 44 single-member districts.

Redistricting is a once-a-decade ritual that often leads to political fights in the Legislature. Though members of the board from the minority parties have insisted that the redistricting changes are not political in nature — in fact, that they are bound by statute to avoid conversations about incumbency and political impact — the effective result would be the potential elimination of Democratic incumbents in a number of districts.

Such would be the case in Windham County, as the draft plan rearranges most of the current districts and forces three longtime Democratic House members into new districts.

Big shifts ahead?

The current Windham-2 district — which is held by Rep. Ann Manwaring, D-Wilmington, and now consists of Halifax, Whitingham, and Wilmington — would see the most drastic change.

It would lose Halifax and Whitingham, and gain the current Windham-Bennington-1 district towns of Dover, Searsburg, Somerset, Stratton, and Wardsboro.

Stamford, currently in Windham-Bennington-1, would be reassigned to the Bennington-1 district.

Readsboro, another Windham-Bennington-1 town, would be moved into what would become the new Windham-2 district, which would also include Halifax, Whitingham, and Marlboro.

The current officeholder in Windham-Bennington-1 — Rep. John Moran, D-Wardsboro — would see his district all but eliminated. He would be forced to run in the newly configured Windham-Bennington-1 district against Manwaring in a primary next year.

“I knew I was vulnerable because of the size of my district,” said Moran. “But it has taken me five years to build up the relationships I have in towns like Readsboro and Stamford, and it’s sad to think that those relationships might disappear.”

Manwaring said that she had a hard time understanding the logic behind the proposed changes to the districts that she and Moran represent.

“This seriously alters things for our constituents,” she said, adding that she hopes she will not be forced to run against Moran, whom she called a good friend and colleague.

The Windham-6 district held by Rep. Richard Marek, D-Newfane, would lose Marlboro, and gain Athens and Brookline from the Windham-4 district. Townshend and Newfane would remain in Windham-6.

The current two-seat district of Windham-5, now represented by Reps. David Deen, D-Westminster, and Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, would also see changes.

The entire town of Westminster would be moved into Windham-4. Currently, only the northwest portion of Westminster lies in that district.

Windham-5 would instead contain only Dummerston and Putney, and it would become a one-member district. With Deen’s hometown no longer in Windham-5, he would be forced to run for a seat in the new Windham-4.

“I have no idea what the math was about in remaking our district,” said Deen. “There is a long tradition of Dummerston, Putney, and Westminster being in the same district.”

In addition to losing Athens and Brookline, the current two-seat district of Windham-4 now held by Reps. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, and Matt Trieber, D-Bellows Falls, would also lose Grafton and Windham.

The newly configured Windham-4 would consist of just Rockingham and Westminster; Grafton and Windham would be moved into Windham-Bennington-Windsor-1.

Partridge would be forced to run in that district, which is now held by Rep. Oliver Olson, R-Jamaica. It would also gain Landgrove, and lose Weston and Winhall, while keeping Jamaica and Londonderry.

The Windham-1 district of Guilford and Vernon, and the three House districts in Brattleboro, are the only districts in Windham County unaffected by the proposed redistricting plan.

What’s next?

State lawmakers must realign districts this year in response to demographic changes tracked by the 2010 federal Census. House and Senate districts were last reapportioned in 2002.

Based on data collected from the 2010 census, the “ideal number” of citizens for every one lawmaker is 4,172 for state representatives and exactly five times that number for state senators.

Though Democrats hold solid majorities in the House and the Senate, they have just three out of the total of seven seats on the Apportionment Board. The two GOP and two Progressive board members joined forces to support the new map, which gives the two minority parties an electoral leg up.

Although the board does not need to present a final map until Aug. 15, there is pressure to move things along, as it must submit the finalized version of its first draft on July 1. That draft must be reviewed by the Board of Civil Authority, which represents towns throughout the state.

But area lawmakers believe that the plan approved last week is, in the words of Marek, “absolutely dead on arrival.”

“We’ve got the ‘bluest’ county in the state, and you come up with a plan that assures three Democrats would lose their seats? I don’t see any way on earth that you will be able to sell this,” said Marek.

Since Democrats dominate the House and the Senate, Marek said, such a plan is unlikely to survive in the Legislature, which has the final say.

“If history is any indication, I wouldn’t read too much into the draft plans being developed by the reapportionment board,” said Olson.  “The Legislature is not bound to adopt proposals from the Reapportionment Board, and, to the best of my knowledge, it never has.  Incumbency will be the dominating factor once this proposal moves to the Legislature.  The political reality is that, with one party commanding a huge majority, there won’t be much appetite for major changes that might endanger the incumbency of its members.”

Deen, the senior member of the Windham County legislative delegation and a veteran of several reapportionment battles, said that “this is just the first cut, and it’s a long way from being a done deal.”

And, as Marek pointed out, the current legislative district map was drawn up by a Republican-controlled Legislature a decade ago.

“The current map is still perfectly usable with some minor tweaks,” said Marek. “If you have a map that has worked for 10 years, why would you blow it up for an intellectual exercise that maintains that one-member districts are preferable to two-member districts?”

Moran said that while he understands the logic behind wanting to create more single-member districts, which supporters say will give constituents easier access to representatives and make politicians directly accountable to voters, he also thinks there will be little support in the Legislature for this draft plan - especially since it changes the district of House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown.

Smith’s district, which consists of his hometown, along with Woodbury, Worcester, and Elmore, would be divided into four new districts.

One-half of Morristown would be a standalone district; the other half would be merged with Johnson. In this scenario, Smith would be pitted against Rep. Mark Woodward, D-Johnson.

“I guess the question is whether you want to spend time engaging in an exercise that’s going to thud in the Legislature, or do something that’s going to work,” Smith said. “I do understand what the point is. Redistricting is a mixture of politics and policy. I’m worried that the direction [the board] might want to move in is going to be overshadowed by something that is political, and that would be too bad.”

To Marek, the flaws in the draft plan will “make it easier for the Legislature to start over with a plan that addresses the deficiencies in a logical way.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #105 (Wednesday, June 15, 2011).

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