Oregon legislature on the brink as Democrats push gerrymandered maps

A leading proposal to redraw Oregon’s congressional district lines boiled over into partisan acrimony as Democrats aim to force through a new map that would virtually lock in control of five of the state’s six seats in the U.S. House of Representatives for the next decade.

Republicans in Salem were enraged Monday when House Speaker Tina Kotek (D) set in motion a dual-track plan to force through two sets of maps, one governing congressional district lines and the other legislative district lines. Republican legislators said the move violated an earlier agreement they had reached with majority Democrats to give each side a say in how new district lines were drawn. 

“Clearly they’re determined to adopt a gerrymandered congressional map for the state of Oregon,” said state Rep. Christine Drazan (R), the House minority leader. “She’s decided to cheat Oregonians out of fair maps.”

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Kotek, who is running for governor next year, on Monday created two separate redistricting panels, one for each set of maps. The committee drawing congressional district lines is made up of two Democrats and one Republican. The committee considering legislative district lines is evenly divided between the two sides.

Hours after Kotek’s announcement, the committee tasked with redrawing congressional lines approved a map advanced by the state Senate, though the lone Republican member boycotted the vote. The committee responsible for legislative district lines approved their map on a 5-3 margin, with one Republican joining the Democratic majority.

The state House delayed action on the proposed maps scheduled for Tuesday after someone connected to the legislature was exposed to the coronavirus.

Under the new maps, five of the six congressional districts favor Democrats, including the new 6th District, which runs from the southwest Portland suburbs into the Willamette Valley.

The congressional maps carve up heavily Democratic Portland between three districts that stretch west to the Pacific Coast, south along Interstate 5 and east across the Cascade Mountains. They also shore up Rep. Peter DeFazioPeter Anthony DeFazio'Design-build' contracts key to infrastructure success EPA closer to unveiling plan for tackling 'forever chemicals' Congress sends 30-day highway funding patch to Biden after infrastructure stalls MORE (D), adding some left-leaning Pacific Coast counties to a seat that had trended toward Republicans in recent years.

The new maps extend the district currently held by Rep. Earl BlumenauerEarl BlumenauerTo sustain humanity COP26 must lead on both climate and biodiversity Ilhan Omar to Biden: 'Deliver on your promise to cancel student debt' Milestone bill would bar imports linked to forest destruction MORE (D), a former Portland city commissioner before he won election to Congress, east and south through rural areas to Bend, a growing city east of the Cascades 120 miles away.

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Oregon Democratic candidates for Congress won 56 percent of the vote across the state last year, though they carried four of the five U.S. House districts.

“This is clearly a pro-Democratic map,” said Mark Gaber, the redistricting director at the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog that grades states on their remapping processes and results. “If you’re looking at it from proportionality, this is over representing Democrats.”

Kotek said she was confident that the maps would withstand any legal scrutiny. 

“I’m confident the maps passed by the Oregon Senate are fair and representative of the entire state, and that they meet all statutory and constitutional requirements,” she said in a statement Tuesday.

But Republicans said they saw avenues to a legal challenge.

“It’s laughable that they would with a straight face say that map actually conforms with our constitutional and statutory requirements,” Drazan said. “These maps clearly absolutely are incumbency protection maps that are intended to benefit the Democrat Party. There’s no getting around it.”

The congressional district maps are certain to raise uncomfortable questions for national Democrats, who have campaigned in recent years on anti-gerrymandering platforms in states across the country. Democrats have complained bitterly about Republican proposals to split cities like Nashville, Tenn., and Omaha, Neb., between different congressional districts in an effort to turn competitive or safe Democratic seats into solidly Republican outposts. 

But in Oregon, the party has shown no qualms about dividing Portland’s Multnomah County — which gave President BidenJoe BidenGrant Woods, longtime friend of McCain and former Arizona AG, dies at 67 Sanders on Medicare expansion in spending package: 'Its not coming out' Glasgow summit raises stakes for Biden deal MORE 79 percent of the vote in 2020 — between districts that are coupled with timber and coastal communities to the west and rural farmland to the east.

“They’ve been nothing but hypocrites on this issue. They’ve spent the last couple of years calling on my party to just be better. And they’re being complete hypocrites right now,” Drazan said. “Either gerrymandering is cheating or it’s not, and Democrats across the nation say it’s cheating. But what they should be saying is gerrymandering is cheating, unless we do it.”

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a group run by former Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderArkansas legislature splits Little Rock in move that guarantees GOP seats Oregon legislature on the brink as Democrats push gerrymandered maps Christie, Pompeo named co-chairs of GOP redistricting group MORE to advance Democratic redistricting efforts, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

In a statement, a spokesman for Gov. Kate BrownKate BrownKristof leaves NYT to consider governor bid NYT columnist Kristof takes step toward Oregon governor bid Oregon Republicans sue to block Democrats' redistricting plan MORE (D) did not say whether she would sign the maps if they pass the House.

"The Governor called this special session to give legislators an opportunity to fulfill their constitutional duty to draw legal and fair districts and to ensure Oregon voters have their voices heard at the ballot box. Our office is in touch with legislative leadership as they negotiate with the members of their respective chambers. We are still reviewing the maps under consideration by the Legislature," the spokesman, Charles Boyle, said in an email.

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But Democrats who crafted the maps said their actions were justified because Republicans did not act in good faith.

“Republicans were given the opportunity to engage equally in the redistricting process, even having an equal number of seats on the committee. Unfortunately, they refused to engage meaningfully, showing up at the last minute with highly gerrymandered proposals and attempts to obstruct this constitutional process,” state House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner (D) and Redistricting Committee Chairwoman Andrea Salinas (D) said in a joint statement Monday. “The maps we’re voting on are fair, legally sound, reflect population growth and census data, and take into account the nearly 2,000 pieces of testimony we received from the public. We’re ready to get this work done.” 

Oregon Republicans have been less critical of the state legislative maps proposed by Democrats, which they say were drawn in a more transparent way. But some Republicans see those district lines as an implicit threat: If they block the Democratic proposals to redraw congressional maps to force a federal court to draw lines, responsibility for drawing legislative maps would fall to Secretary of State Shemia Fagan (D), who could craft lines that are better for Democrats than the current proposal.

The redistricting process in Oregon rarely goes smoothly; only twice in the last century have legislators struck agreement on a remap plan without getting courts involved. In 2001, Democrats walked out of the legislative chamber, denying Republicans a quorum and forcing court action.

This year, Republicans are not ruling out their own flight to deny Democrats a quorum — something House Republicans have done on occasion in recent years to block Democratic bills they deem unacceptable. 

“The fact that the Speaker broke her word to Oregonians has changed the dynamic in the building, so we have to evaluate all options,” Drazan said.