In 2018, when Colorado Republicans and Democrats worked together to send Amendments Y and Z to voters in an attempt to tamp down the partisanship in the once-in-a-decade redistricting process, the state’s political landscape looked a lot different.
The GOP controlled the state Senate, a U.S. Senate seat and the offices of treasurer, secretary of state and attorney general.
Flash forward to today and Colorado’s purple political hue has faded to blue. And now, as new 2022 legislative and congressional maps are being drawn, a number of Democrats are privately — and some publicly — kicking themselves that they allowed the constitutional amendments to advance, ceding redistricting power as the party secured more political control than they’ve had since 1936.
“They basically decided to hang themselves for the next 12 years,” said Rick Ridder, a Democratic political strategist who has worked on redistricting in Colorado for decades. “I voted against it. I thought it was a bad idea.”
If Y and Z hadn’t passed, Democrats would now have nearly unfettered power to draw new congressional districts ahead of the 2022 election, and potentially more say over how the updated legislative districts are drawn. The stakes are high: Colorado will get an eighth congressional seat in 2022, and who wins that seat could determine which party controls the U.S. House.
Under the old redistricting system, the legislature came up with the congressional boundaries and a commission, whose members were appointed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, the governor and the Colorado Supreme Court’s chief justice, handled the legislative maps.
Amendments Y and Z, which passed by a wide margin in 2018, instead mandated the formation of two independent redistricting commissions, each made up of 12 members — four Democrats, four Republicans and four unaffiliated voters — chosen by a judicial panel with some input from top Democratic and Republican state lawmakers.
The commissions, with the help of nonpartisan legislative staff and public input, will draw the new maps with an emphasis on competitiveness and keeping communities of interest whole. Gerrymandering and protecting incumbents is explicitly not allowed.
“Politics is about power. That’s what it’s about. You use it to your benefit,” said Ridder. “If you’ve got the fastball and it’s going at 105, why do you start throwing a breaking ball to slow the guy’s bat down? You didn’t see Randy Johnson and Bob Feller in a tight situation try to throw a breaking ball. No. They threw their 110 mph pitch.”
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The first set of congressional and legislative maps released last month were drawn by nonpartisan legislative staff. While it doesn’t appear the proposed districts would remove Democrats’ majorities, they may shrink the size of the party’s power.
The preliminary legislative maps also placed a number of rising-star Democrats in the legislature in the same districts as other members of their party. For instance, state Reps. Dylan Roberts of Avon and Julie McCluskie of Dillon would live in the same district, as would Reps. Kyle Mullica of Northglenn and Yadira Caraveo of Thornton. Sens. Faith Winter, of Westminster, and Rachel Zenzinger, of Arvada, were also drawn into the same district, as were Sens. Chris Hansen and Robert Rodriguez, both of Denver.
Democratic state lawmakers have been urged by their leadership at the Capitol not to speak to reporters about the preliminary maps, and none talked to The Colorado Sun on the record for this story. But behind the scenes, in caucus group chats, major concerns are brewing.
“We’re (expletive) idiots,” said one Democratic state lawmaker, who asked to remain anonymous to speak frankly about the situation.
Morgan Carroll, chair of the Colorado Democratic Party, declined a request to be interviewed for this story. But she hinted at her apparent frustration in a written statement released after the preliminary congressional map was released.
“This preliminary plan seems to put a thumb on the scale for Republicans,” said Carroll, who was involved in the 2011 redistricting process and ran unsuccessfully in 2016 to represent the 6th Congressional District.
But if leading Democrats are unwilling to talk about the redistricting process and their thoughts, those a step away from elected office are voicing concern.
“I think maps that don’t reflect the fact that voters here have validated Democratic candidates and Democratic policies are inherently unfair,” said Laura Chapin, a Democratic strategist. “I am not the least bit interested in a 4-4 (congressional) split in Colorado that does not reflect the will of the voters and helps Republicans win the (U.S.) House back in 2022.”
She admits that Democrats were operating under a different political reality in 2018 when Amendments Y and Z were placed on the ballot and that “hindsight is 20/20.” But there were people warning that Democrats were giving the store away.
“There were many of us who were appropriately skeptical and I wish more of us had been listened to at the time,” Chapin said.
Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat who sponsored the legislation placing Amendments Y and Z on the 2018 ballot, said he thinks “some folks have a revisionist history when it comes to how Y and Z came to be.”
Democrats opted to work on Y and Z, which were referred to voters by a unanimous vote of the legislature, in large part because there were other ballot measures on the same subject in the works by Republicans.
The GOP-backed measures appeared to have enough momentum to pass, and Democrats felt it was better to be on board and tweak the amendments to make them more favorable than to sit on the sidelines and watch them be voted into law.
Y and Z were seen as a fair compromise, including more emphasis on preserving geographic areas and requiring that protections in the federal Voting Rights Act be incorporated. Kent Thiry, the wealthy former CEO of DaVita who is an unaffiliated voter, joined the cause and tossed his clout behind the effort.
“I think it’s better that Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated folks all were involved in shaping what Y and Z turned out to be,” Fenberg said.
The ballot measures were celebrated as a potential model for the rest of the country.
“The fact is that the people of Colorado wanted a fair process,” said Greg Brophy, a Republican former state senator. “I think the whole country is watching Colorado to see if redistricting can be done in a truly fair, nonpartisan manner. And hopefully we find out that it can be.”
But he admits that given the power to draw the maps on behalf of the GOP — and in his party’s favor — he’d take it.
“Everybody knows I’m a partisan,” he said. “If I had the power to gerrymander I’d be happy to do it. But the people of Colorado said they wanted a process that’s free of gerrymandering, by wide margins. It’s the commissions’ duty now to give them that.”
Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Douglas County Republican, is another conservative who has lauded Y and Z. He recently said that redistricting this year will be his party’s best chance at winning back power.
“(Amendments) Y and Z will be the first step toward achieving the Senate majority for Republicans,” he told reporters last month.
Amanda Gonzazles, who leads Colorado Common Cause, a nonpartisan good government organization that worked on Y and Z, said despite the concerns, the new redistricting process is a big improvement.
“By taking the process out of the hands of politicians, I’m sure it frustrates some people in power,” she said. “But I think it’s a process that’s much more trusted by the average Coloradan. I think that’s ultimately a good thing.”
Others who worked on Y and Z are also defending the process. They’re also encouraging patience.
“What we are seeing right now are preliminary maps,” said Democrat Bernie Buescher, a former state representative and secretary of state who was a leading force behind Y and Z. “The process is designed for a significant amount of public comment and reworking of the maps to come up with maps that appropriately represent communities of interest, protect city and county boundaries, and promote the maximum number of competitive districts. I’m confident that at the end of the day all of those things are going to happen.”
Buescher said the commissions and nonpartisan legislative staff are “trying their darndest to do the best job they can.”
But he also said there will be complaints from both political parties.
“Are they going to be happy? No, because both parties want more safe seats,” he said.
Curtis Hubbard, a political strategist who worked on Y and Z, also pointed out that there’s a lot more work to be done.
“Anyone who is concerned about whether the maps are fair or unfair has numerous opportunities in the weeks ahead to point that out to the commissions and offer up better plans,” he said. “That’s what Y and Z envisions. And that’s the purpose of having the preliminary plans as a starting point, not a finish line.”
But Alice Madden, a Democrat and former Colorado House majority leader who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate last year, thinks Y and Z are trying to fix a “problem that did not exist.” She has a hard time trusting the end product, and thinks that partisanship will still be a big part of the maps that are drawn.
“Just because someone calls something good government doesn’t mean that it is,” she said.