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Commissioners listen to public testimony during a redistricting meeting on Tuesday, August 24, 2021, at the Eagle Pointe Recreation Center in Commerce City. The Colorado Independent Congressional and Legislative Redistricting Commissions draw Colorado's legislative districts for 2021. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

East versus west versus south. Rural versus urban. County versus county.

In more than 100 hours of public testimony during July and August, the two independent commissions redrawing Colorado’s congressional and legislative maps heard plenty about perceived differences among various communities. They also heard why certain cities and counties shouldn’t be split among multiple districts.

Now, the 24 commissioners and the nonpartisan staff drawing the maps must turn that feedback into political boundaries. A rendition of a new congressional map based on the comments is expected by Sunday but could be released as soon as Friday. A pair of proposed legislative maps will be released Sept. 13.

There are plenty of conflicting sentiments and complicated logistics to consider. 

In the end, it’s unlikely that everyone will be happy with the new congressional and legislative districts. But that’s kind of the point in the experiment that is Colorado’s new redistricting process, adopted by voters in 2018 through the passage of Amendments Y and Z. 

MORE: Big decisions still left on the next round of Colorado’s congressional map

Commissioners must consider the priorities for maps outlined in the state’s constitution: making sure districts have equal population, protecting the rights of minority populations, keeping communities of interest together and achieving political competitiveness, in that order.

Scott Martinez, a Democratic lawyer who drew the maps that were adopted in the past two redistricting cycles, isn’t actively participating in the process so far this year. But he’s been watching closely.

“I’m interested to see how this all shakes out,” Martinez said. “It’s so hard to tell what the commissioners think. They have some great poker faces. But they’re taking it seriously and listening carefully.

“At the end of the day, everyone will be represented at the legislature or in Congress,” he added. “When you listen to testimony, it’s about what kind of representation they’ll have.”

The Colorado Sun analyzed comments submitted to Colorado’s independent redistricting commissions website and listened in on many of the public hearings. Here’s a look at some of the themes that emerged from public comment.

What geography unites or divides us?

Mountains, plains and water define Colorado, but how they fit into political boundaries is complicated.

Mountain communities share a lot: economies dependent on tourism and outdoor recreation, a housing crisis exacerbated by tourists and second-homeowners, environmental threats like wildfires and mudslides, and transportation interests centered on major highways and roads. 

Local government officials and mountain town residents have pointed to those shared interests as a reason why the high country should be kept together in new maps. But commissioners also heard from communities who said there are key differences that set some apart. 

Alan Fraser, with Neils Lunceford Landscaping, hauls in dirt in front of a home for sale Thursday, August 26, 2021, in Breckenridge. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

A preliminary congressional map drawn by nonpartisan staff placed the western part of Boulder County in the 3rd Congressional District with counties west of the Continental Divide. Boulder County residents submitted 10% of the 2,300 online comments, many of them objecting to being split from the rest of their county and the Front Range.

“We have no common traits with the Western Slope: it takes 2.5 hours to get there, we don’t live there, work there, volunteer there, pay our taxes there,” wrote Kim Renner Busey of Ward. 

At a meeting in Frisco, several Summit County residents argued they also should be drawn into districts with the Front Range, not the Western Slope, because mountain towns along the Interstate 70 corridor are “recreational, environmental-based economies,” unlike communities to the west that rely on agriculture and oil and gas industries, said Hunter Mortenson, the mayor of Frisco. “I see us as being too much at odds with each other.”

And some in Larimer County questioned the wisdom of proposed state House and Senate districts that cross the divide and lump them in with northwestern Colorado counties.

“The proposed Senate District places Larimer County in a district that extends to the Utah line, and is separated from Larimer County by the Continental Divide,” Berthoud resident Jon Nicholas wrote. “Such a sharp separation of interests cannot be justified, as the communities are not proximate and do not share the same policy concerns.”

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Then there’s water, such a frequent topic at hearings the Independent Congressional Commission invited a water expert to discuss the state’s watersheds.

Elaine Brett, a Paonia resident, echoed those concerns about watersheds, telling the commissions that the San Luis Valley shouldn’t be included in a 4th Congressional District that stretches to the northeastern part of the state. She noted that parts of the valley along the Arkansas River, which flows southeast to Kansas, and the South Platte River, which flows northeast to Nebraska, would be part of the 4th District.

“Regarding public lands and water, the (San Luis Valley) has much more in common with the mountain counties of the current CD3 than with those CD4 counties in the new map,” she wrote. “The Western Slope mountain counties are headwaters for major rivers that are water sources for our whole state and for states to the West and East of us.”

The different water interests have  also led to growing traction around the idea of a southern Colorado congressional district based on the river basin. 

“In southern Colorado, water is life,” Carole Partin, of Pueblo, told the commissions at their first public hearing in Lamar. “We need one representative to take care of our interests so we’re not fighting with someone in the north to get the stuff that we need.” 

Rural versus urban meets population realities

That division between the southern and northern plains, the most rural parts of the state and which have a dwindling population, leads to another oft-expressed division at the redistricting hearings: the divide between urban and rural parts of the state. 

Residents on the Eastern Plains, the Western Slope and the San Luis Valley want representation for their rural ways of life, including shared issues like access to health care and broadband internet. But those three regions differ from each other in significant ways, from local culture to their types of agricultural activity. 

The conundrum is that these areas often represent parts of Colorado that lost population or made slim gains in the past 10 years. They must be paired with more urban areas to get to the 721,714 population (give or take a voter or two) to comprise a congressional district — a top requirement for districts in the state constitution. 

And which urban communities get paired with rural ones has become a sticking point among commissioners. 

Jason Dechant, stands near the Main Street in Kit Carson where the Kit Carson Rural Development has began restoring homes near the school, and offering those homes to community members who teach at the local school. Kit Carson County lost the most population of any Colorado county over the last decade, which local officials largely attribute to the closure of a private prison. (Carl Payne/Special to the Colorado Sun)

The preliminary congressional map places northern Colorado communities, including Greeley, into a 4th congressional district that includes Douglas County, extends across the Eastern Plains and sweeps south to include Pueblo and much of the San Luis Valley.

“Douglas County has zero acres of corn and zero acres of wheat. Weld County is the No. 1 producer of corn,” said former state Sen. Greg Brophy, a Wray resident who argues that Douglas County shouldn’t be added to an area with agricultural interests. “It’s important for the rural areas, to the greatest extent possible, to have a legislator who is dedicated to them.”

Preliminary legislative maps create large Senate and House districts when it comes to geographic area, but the number of state lawmakers from those rural districts are few. 

“We probably have more lane miles out here but much less money coming to fix those lane miles. … We have 45% of all the landmass of Colorado in two Senate districts,” Republican state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, of Sterling, told commissioners at one of the earliest public hearings on the Eastern Plains.

That desire for more representation was repeated by other rural residents, and typically met by a response from redistricting commissioners citing the first rule of the process: Population matters most. 

Still, residents in rural areas asked the commissions and their staff in several instances to find ways to keep areas together. Washington County is grouped with southeastern plains counties in a proposed state House district, for instance, instead of with other northern plains counties.

At a Montrose hearing in July, several people complained about a proposal dividing Delta County in proposed state Senate and House districts.

“Montrose (County) and Delta County have always had a relationship between them,” said state Rep. Marc Catlin, a Montrose Republican, urging that the two counties be drawn together. 

The first proposed legislative maps also place Caitlin and Republican Rep. Matt Soper, a Delta Republican, in the same House district. 

Many San Luis Valley residents and others from southern Colorado want a congressional district that encompasses the entire southern portion of the state from border to border, pointing to factors like their similar economic development needs, the region’s historic Latino and Native American communities, and their tourism-based economies. Some versions of such a plan would include not only Pueblo and Durango, but also Grand Junction and part of El Paso County. 

Members of the Independent Congressional Redistricting Commission, however, are divided over the boundaries of such a district. At a meeting Wednesday, seven commissioners supported a plan to consider Pueblo, Otero, Huerfano and Las Animas counties as a single community of interest with the entire San Luis Valley and the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute reservations. 

The seven were one vote short of the eight-vote supermajority needed to adopt a formal requirement for the map. 

Urban animosity and desires to stay together

Jefferson and Boulder county residents submitted the highest number of comments to the independent redistricting commissions through Tuesday. In the preliminary maps, both counties are separated into two congressional districts and multiple state House and Senate districts.

In denser urban areas, the tough decisions revolve around where to split or combine counties and cities.

For instance, people at public hearings in Greeley and Fort Collins were divided over whether Weld and Larimer counties should be in the same congressional district. In 2011, the last year redistricting was done, Larimer was included with Boulder in the 2nd Congressional District. But some now believe Larimer and Weld should be part of a new 8th District.

“I see Weld and Larimer being much more aligned in terms of goals and values than Larimer and Boulder,” resident Kristi Smiley said at the Fort Collins hearing.

Several people echoed her view, but Fort Collins City Council member Tricia Canonico and others disagreed, saying the universities and tech industries in Boulder and Larimer counties make them more alike than different.

Then there’s the clear animosity between Weld and Boulder counties, where the fast-growing city of Erie straddles the county line. Weld County Commissioner Lori Saine, who represented Erie in the state House, spoke about those differences at a public hearing in Greeley.

“No matter how far on the left or on the right on the political spectrum, the residents of Weld County chose to live there, because they want the maximum freedom to pursue happiness,” Saine said. “And the delineation cannot be be brighter than across those Boulder-Weld County lines”

At a Boulder hearing, Erie resident Sarah Laughlin made clear the feeling is mutual. “Our counties have substantial differences,” she said. “We chose to live in Boulder County for a reason.”

And while Eastern Plains agricultural interests don’t want to be paired with Douglas County, neither do some residents of Jefferson County. 

“Douglas County’s commissioners do not act in tandem with others. They appear to have more in common with the eastern part of the state,” Carl Hamm, who lives in the unincorporated Applewood neighborhood, told commissioners during a public hearing in Arvada.

After hearing about such urban divisions at a Brighton hearing in late August, Congressional Redistricting Commissioner Danny Moore, a Centennial Republican, noted that Douglas must join other counties in at least one congressional district, potentially one now represented by Democrats.

“Someone’s going to be unhappy, either (U.S. Rep.) Ed Perlmutter’s going to be unhappy or (U.S.  Rep.) Jason Crow is going to be unhappy,” Moore said. “Douglas County has to go somewhere.”

The commissioners are also grappling with whether to divide some counties and cities. Residents and advocates in Commerce City, for example, called for the city to be kept whole in the new districts after the preliminary congressional map and state Senate map divided the city. 

COMMERCE CITY, CO – JULY 18: The Suncor refinery is visible underneath a large power line as visitors arrive at Fairfax Park on July 18, 2021 in Commerce City, Colorado. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

Issamar Pichardo, a community organizer with Conservation Colorado, said keeping Commerce City together would allow its significant Latino communities to have greater political influence, and give voice to communities impacted by the Suncor refinery and other heavy industries that employ many residents but also expose them to environmental health risks.

“To separate our communities is to break apart the opportunity to build a collective voice that is needed for state or federal action on environmental justice,” Pichardo said. 

Those communities also don’t stop or start at city or county boundaries, said congressional Commissioner Bill Leone, a Westminster Republican, noting that newly developed suburban parts of Commerce City differ from the older, industrial portions of the city where warehouses and refineries are located. 

“I can see that community of interest spilling over into the Denver (county) boundary,” he said at an Aug. 26 commission meeting. 

Both Denver and El Paso counties have populations that are too big to be standalone congressional districts, so the commission will need to decide what parts of the counties should be split off. 

In El Paso, where there’s a significant divide between urban Colorado Springs and more rural, sparsely populated eastern portions of the county, commissioners also must consider issues such as the region’s military installations and ties to southern Colorado.  

Race and ethnicity

After population, commissioners’ second constitutionally mandated priority for drawing districts is to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits districts that “dilute” the votes of minority groups. 

Colorado’s constitution also calls for greater protections than the Voting Rights Act, and requires the commissions to draw districts that protect the ability of minority voters to influence electoral outcomes. 

So far, at least two groups have alleged preliminary maps drawn by redistricting staff violate the Voting Rights Act

Former State Senator Polly Baca speaks on Tuesday, August 10, 2021, at La Alma-Lincoln Park in Denver. Leaders from the Latino community unveiled legislative maps drawn by CLLARO to be submitted to the Independent Legislative Redistricting Commission. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

With Hispanic residents now exceeding one-fifth of the state’s population, according to 2020 census data, many advocates are watching closely to see if the maps will reflect that population’s growth in places like northern Colorado and the Roaring Fork Valley. 

Victor Galvan, political field director for the progressive community group United for a New Economy, said the new maps should keep fast-growing Latino neighborhoods in Adams County together.

“In the past, Adams County voters, especially Latino voters, are often looked to as a source of ‘extra’ population and votes for outside suburban districts,” Galvan said at a hearing in Commerce City. 

Since the release of the preliminary congressional and legislative maps in June, commissioners heard from a number of groups representing Hispanic Coloradans and other minorities that the maps wash over nuances in their communities, including grouping populations of more recent Hispanic immigrants with longtime Chicano communities in the San Luis Valley. 

Advocates and local business leaders have also raised concerns about districts in the preliminary legislative maps that split up historic Latino and Black neighborhoods in Denver. 

Congressional commissioners have also clashed over how to best handle the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute reservations, located along the southwest border of the state. While most commissioners generally agree on keeping both tribes together, they haven’t decided what other communities to draw them with.

Staff and members of both commissions have not heard directly from leaders of both tribes. At a Colorado Springs hearing Saturday, Ernest House, the former executive director of the Colorado Commission on Indian Affairs, said both tribes have been unable to participate because of the worsening coronavirus pandemic.

With an entirely new redistricting process unfolding amid a pandemic, the process might seem chaotic. But Mario Nicolais, a former Republican member of the 2011 redistricting commission (and Colorado Sun columnist) said that could be a good thing.  

“I think that’s proof (the new process) is working,” said Nicolais, who is now an unaffiliated voter. “No one is controlling it behind the scenes.”

But look for the proof in the new maps.

Thy Vo previously was a politics reporter for The Colorado Sun.

Sandra Fish has covered government and politics in Iowa, Florida, New Mexico and Colorado. She was a full-time journalism instructor at the University of Colorado for eight years, and her work as appeared on CPR, KUNC, The Washington Post, Roll...