Redistricting forces black Democrats to pick sides

Redrawing congressional districts poses hard choices between protecting black seats and Democratic ones.

With Census 2000 finally drawing to a close, the hard math of redistricting is about to begin.

In a few weeks, after the Census Bureau releases local population figures, Democrats and Republicans will begin the familiar scramble to redraw congressional districts, hoping to create as many seats as possible for their side.

But this also presents an unexpected dilemma for black Democratic leaders, who may be forced to choose exactly which "side" they're on: Will they align themselves with the Democratic Party, which is anxious to win back the House of Representatives in 2002? Or with the many African-Americans who simply hope to increase the number of blacks in Congress?

"In the public, it's usually viewed as a huge battle between the parties," says Jeff Smith, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis. But "more often than not, it's people of the same party fighting over the same people."

Of course, the battle between the parties is still a big part of it. Democrats are currently squabbling with Republicans over whether to correct raw data with population estimates, which statisticians believe are more accurate. The issue matters because, by using estimates, the number of minorities would grow slightly, presumably giving Democrats an edge.

Over the weekend, the Bush administration declared it would have final say over the decision, drawing howls of protest from Democrats.

But after they pass that milestone, the contest gets far more interesting - and convoluted.

Consider Georgia. In 1990, it had eight white Democratic congressmen, as well as one black Democrat and one white Republican. So black Democrats worked with Republicans during the last redistricting and made impressive gains: Today, blacks hold three congressional seats. But Republicans did even better. They won the rest of Georgia's districts.

The issue takes on greater complexity now that the House is so evenly divided: Do blacks want more seats than the 39 they already hold? Or would they rather see Democrats gain the majority so blacks in Congress can exercise more power?

"There may be a strong desire to protect what's already there," says Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia in Athens. But there is also "an interest in trying to draw enough other Democratic districts in order to help Democrats gain a majority."

Sometimes that's easy. Sometimes it's not. In Detroit, for example, "it's very easy to draw two minority seats," says Ed Sarpolus of EPIC-MRA, an independent consulting and research firm in Lansing, Mich. Both redrawn districts might be slightly less black - 57 to 60 percent minority instead of 65 to 75 percent - but still safe for incumbents.

But in places with smaller concentrations of minorities, the status quo looks harder to preserve. That's because large cities across the United States - traditional Democratic strongholds - are shrinking, while suburbs are growing, forcing many Democrats to push their districts' boundaries out into what is typically considered more hostile territory.

Here in Missouri, for example, the key redistricting battle is shaping up between two Democrats - House minority leader Richard Gephardt and Rep. William Clay. Mr. Clay represents the traditional black district that encompasses the northern half of St. Louis and its surrounding suburbs while Mr. Gephardt has south St. Louis and the suburbs stretching south and west.

The dilemma lies with Gephardt's district. The last thing Democrats want to do is push their House leader into a tougher electoral position. Gephardt's district is already only marginally Democratic, and he's not eager to extend into more Republican suburban and rural territory. So, ideally, he would grab more of St. Louis. But that would push Clay's district further into the suburbs.

And while Clay would be unlikely to face real opposition from Republicans, since the inner suburbs north and west of St. Louis contain fair amounts of Democrats, he could face a white challenger in a Democratic primary.

That's a real concern for blacks because historically African-Americans have almost always won seats in Congress only when they ran in districts where minorities are in the majority. Several African-American incumbents have managed to keep their seats even after redistricting made their districts majority white. But it's not clear black newcomers can win seats in predominantly white districts, unless

they have widespread name recognition, such as former sports star J.C. Watts, now a Republican congressman from Oklahoma.

The Democrats' dilemma has Missouri Republicans rubbing their hands in anticipation. "With Democrats attempting to keep two St. Louis seats and make them as reasonably safe as they can, I don't see how we come out of redistricting with less than six districts," says John Hancock, executive director of the state Republican party. The GOP currently holds five of Missouri's nine congressional districts.

Even if Republicans don't succeed in gaining another seat, they may score an equally impressive victory by making Gephardt's district so close that he will have to spend his energy getting reelected rather than campaigning for other Democrats around the country.

"Redistricting is the life of politics," says Jim Nowlan, a former state legislator and now senior fellow with the Institute for Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Urbana. "These people will devote inordinate amounts of time to moving this or that precinct in or out of their district, because it's a fun board game. [Ironically], controlling the process doesn't guarantee that your side will win majorities."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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