The first visible whiff of political party engagement in the Legislature’s redistricting process surfaced Wednesday along with battle lines forming over a rural strategy that opponents warn could lead to a court test.
This year’s redistricting plot thickened during a committee hearing in Lincoln, the second of three public airings of competing legislative and congressional redistricting plans in advance of consideration by the nonpartisan Legislature.
Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward, whose District 24 — composed of York, Seward and Polk Counties — would be moved to Sarpy County under a plan supported by the five Republican members of the Redistricting Committee, said the Nebraska Republican Party is actively engaged in the redistricting process.
Kolterman, a Republican, pointed to an email from Ryan Hamilton, executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party, urging Republicans to “show up and support (the) fair and evenhanded” proposals crafted by Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, the committee chairwoman, and the committee majority.
“Nebraska is a conservative state with conservative values ... and our people deserve a map that enables them to have their beliefs reflected in government,” Hamilton wrote in the email.
Kolterman said Hamilton’s “full-throated endorsement of one of the legislative proposals to reflect ‘conservative values’ raises serious concerns that the proposal is neither fair nor evenhanded.”
“I’m disappointed,” he told the committee. “I didn’t take an oath to serve the Republican Party. Partisanship has no place in this process.
“Don’t tear my district apart,” Kolterman said.
Responding later, Hamilton said “Democrats have sent out four emails to our one, hosted a planning call for activists to prep them on testimony and to this day maintain a clearing house on their website” for messaging, Hamilton said.
“If anyone is playing partisanship with redistricting, it is state Democrats,” he said.
Earlier in the hearing, Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, a Democrat, warned his rural Republican colleagues that a developing strategy to apply the allowable 10% deviation in population of proposed new legislative districts as a way to “game the maps to increase rural strength” would invite a court test.
That allowable population deviation is “not intended as a tool to game more representation,” Lathrop said, but rather as “a tool to help keep cities and counties whole.”
Lathrop’s remarks came after Sen. Mike Moser of Columbus, a Republican, suggested that the Legislature should “utilize all of the allowable legislative deviation to preserve western Nebraska.”
“We are on a course ... very close to the point ... where it could be physically impossible to represent a district because it’s so large,” Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon said. His District 43 in northwestern Nebraska already is larger in size that the country of Croatia, he said.
Another point of contention raised during Wednesday’s hearing was the committee majority’s plan to divide Douglas County in revising congressional districts, moving northwest portions into the 1st District and transferring Saunders County into the Omaha district.
Metropolitan Omaha’s 2nd District is Nebraska’s only competitive House battleground.
“There is no logical or justifiable reason to split Douglas County,” Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, a Democrat who is vice chairman of the Redistricting Committee, said.
Linehan said the congressional district proposal “assures that minority voices are protected,” including specifically the Black and Latino communities in the 2nd District.
With Douglas County continuing to grow at a rapid rate, won’t it “have to split at some point because of population growth?” Sen. Tom Briese of Albion, a Republican member of the committee, asked Wayne.
Probably, Wayne said, but that is not needed now.
“Why is it OK to cut an urban area in half, but not potentially move things around in the West?” Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue asked. Blood is a candidate for the 2022 Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
The redistricting committee will hold its final hearing in Omaha on Thursday.
Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @LJSdon