Opinion

Democrats' revenge in 2012: a radical Illinois gerrymander

Illinois' redistricting plan is poised to turn half a dozen Republican seats Democratic and could help Democrats retake the House in 2012.

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Coming off of last year’s midterms, Democrats wearily eyed Illinois as the only state where they could achieve wide redistricting victories. The only question was whether the state’s leadership, which had contributed to a string of recent political failures, would impose lines that could impact the national balance of power. The plan released late last week and already passed through the legislature indicates that state Democrats are prepared to do just that.

If passed into law, Speaker Michael Madigan’s map could turn half a dozen red seats blue, provide an enormous boon to congressional Democrats as they seek to retake the House, and would represent Democrats’ most bold redistricting play in decades.

Democrats in 2010 were denied control of congressional map-drawing in virtually every big state. The passage of Proposition 20 in California stripped the legislature of redistricting power just as the party had finally won back the governorship. Similarly, the Republicans’ recapturing of the New York Senate deprived Empire State Democrats of a long-awaited bonanza.

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The further loss of governorships or legislatures in Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and elsewhere either blocked Democrats’ from protecting current favorable draws, or worse, gave Republicans carte blanche to impose heavy GOP-friendly maps and preserve tenuous freshmen seats for the next decade. Illinois was the one large state where Democrats maintained one-party dominance.

A major shift to come

Even a cursory glance at the new map – which is on a fast-track and only needs Governor Pat Quinn’s (D) signature for passage – seems to indicate that state Democrats are eager to exercise that control to maximum benefit. While each member of the Democratic delegation was protected, nearly every Republican district was cut apart or shuffled around, inviting scores of intraparty primaries, or forcing GOP incumbents to run in Democratic strongholds or retire.

What is now an 11-8 GOP delegation could turn into a 12-6 or perhaps even 13-5 Democratic advantage (Illinois is losing one seat in the census). Freshmen GOP Representatives Bob Dold, Bobby Schilling, and Joe Walsh, and long-time GOP House veterans Judy Biggert, Don Manzullo, and Tim Johnson would all find themselves in danger of losing their seats, and only Peoria Republican Representative Aaron Schock could feel reasonably comfortable about his future within the confines of the proposed lines.

And these changes would create a raft of larger political implications.

With Democrats growing more optimistic on retaking the House, a six-seat pick-up would be a significant step toward achieving the necessary 24-seat gain. Naturally, redistricting rounds in other states like Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, and Pennsylvania are expected to hack off one blue seat each, but even at worst, Illinois’ new map could limit Republican redistricting gains (not even considering potential victories in California and Florida, which should end up narrowly favoring Democrats).

A history of gerrymandering defeat

More broadly, the Prairie State plan would arguably be Democrats’ most cutting reapportionment after a generation of repeated disappointments. Part of this record comes from bad timing: Over the past 30 years, Democrats have not enjoyed unilateral control in California, Michigan, New York, Ohio, and elsewhere – states where a well-crafted gerrymander could yield the most seats.

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To be fair, in 1991, Texas Democrats did impose a gerrymander that lasted for more a decade, but that same year, majority Florida Democrats foolishly failed to agree on a plan.

The last time Democrats held redistricting control in a large blue state came in 1981. Reeling from the loss of 34 House seats and control of the White House and the Senate, the late Representative Phil Burton (D) drew a fiendish gerrymander that turned a one-seat Democratic deficit in the California delegation into a nine-seat majority, providing a crucial boast to Tip O’Neill’s caucus heading into 1982. In addition to a dearth of opportunities, Democrats have not had a fearless or visionary leader like Burton, and it has shown in the past several rounds of middling nationwide redistricting.

ANOTHER VIEW: How gerrymandering undermines democracy

One man who shared Burton’s fervor for hardball politics (while lacking his incisive brilliance) was former GOP House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who spearheaded the 2003 Texas redistricting battle that produced big gains for Republicans and eviscerated the Democrats’ surviving 1991 map. Mr. DeLay’s power play ousted productive stalwarts like Democrats Charlie Stenholm, Martin Frost, Jim Turner, and Max Sandlin in favor of a roster of undistinguished DeLay acolytes. It was a bold stroke that hammered Democrats and left the national party sputtering and humiliated.

Given its own expansive scope and naked partisanship, the passage of the Illinois map would be Democrats’ long-awaited revenge for the Texas fight.

Redemption for Illinois Democrats

The new map would also provide redemption for Illinois Democrats who were badly embarrassed last year for losing President Obama’s old Senate seat, particularly Mr. Madigan, the map’s mastermind himself, who was unable to recruit his daughter, popular state Attorney General Lisa Madigan, into the contest. And it was Madigan who in 2005 infuriated many Democrats by refusing to initiate mid-decade redistricting to counter the gains ratified by DeLay in Texas the year before.

By emulating Burton’s approach this time around, Madigan has probably redeemed himself with many Democrats who have questioned his 30-year reign in Springfield. Interestingly, while it is unclear what, if any role the just-minted mayor of Chicago had, it's hard not to see the fingerprints of Rahm Emanuel (a former head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) on the harsh new lines as well.

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While the Illinois map has yet to be signed into law, its approval appears near certain. Its passage will give Democrats gratifying redemption for past redistricting defeats and a nice electoral jolt with 2012 on the horizon. Phil Burton would be proud, and somewhere in Texas, even Tom DeLay has to be grudgingly impressed.

Mark Greenbaum is an attorney and freelance writer in Washington.

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