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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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.
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.