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The dozen members of Colorado’s Independent Congressional Redistricting Commission questioned nonpartisan staff Monday about the latest draft map of the state’s U.S. House districts as they prepare to hear from the public about the plan this week.

The map, introduced Friday based on 2020 census data and which has thrown Colorado’s political world into a tizzy, is markedly different from an initial proposal based on 2019 population estimates. 

It features a southern Colorado congressional district instead of western and eastern rural districts. To do that, it would shift urban areas including Boulder County, Fort Collins and Douglas County into districts that also include more rural counties.

“We’re learning every map has some strengths and some weaknesses, there are trade offs with every map,” said Bill Leone, a Republican commissioner from Westminster.

The new configuration — which cannot take current incumbents into account — would also place Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert of Garfield County in the same district with Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse of Lafayette. And GOP U.S. Rep. Ken Buck’s home would be in the new 8th District, which in the draft map is expanded to include more parts of Weld County.

U.S. House members don’t have to live in the districts they run in.

At least three of the proposed districts would favor Democratic candidates and two would favor  Republican candidates, with three districts that would be competitive, according to a report by nonpartisan redistricting staff based on the results of eight statewide races between the 2016 and 2020 elections. Democrats currently hold four of Colorado’s seven congressional seats.

The first staff map based on 2020 census data highlights the challenging task the commission and its staff face as they try to draw eight new congressional districts. In addition to identifying similarities among communities and taking into account competing needs and priorities, the commission must meet a list of constitutional priorities, including the first: making sure each district has the same population (give or take one person). 

“There’s just no way to do this to please everybody,” said Commissioner Moussa Diawara, an unaffiliated voter from Colorado Springs. 

Jeremiah Barry, a nonpartisan legislative attorney advising the commission, noted the southern district proposed in the new map isn’t an idea from staff. Rather, it was drawn to help the commission, which has been divided over whether a southern district should be in the final map, have a concrete proposal to discuss. 

The ultimate goal of staff, he said, is to draw a plan that will get the support of at least eight commissioners, the supermajority required in the state constitution to approve a final map. 

“We want to do everything we can to get a plan that will be approved by the required supermajority of the commissioners,” Barry said. 

MORE: Click here to view the map and related reports. 

Southern Colorado changes the dynamic

At public hearings across southern Colorado, the congressional commission heard from activists and interest groups that want to see the region drawn into a single district, rather than split between districts centered on the Western Slope and Eastern Plains. 

But the southern district included in the latest proposed map changes the dynamic of the entire congressional map, with rural communities being grouped with urban centers to achieve the top constitutional requirement that each district have an equal population of 721,714 people. 

But that’s a challenge when it comes to rural Colorado, where the population is scattered and sparse. 

“They put Grand Junction in with the southern district — that to me shows they had to reach a long ways to reach the numbers to make a district,” said Cathy Shull, executive director of Pro 15, a nonprofit advocating for northeast Colorado.

Members of the public make remarks 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)

The new plan would divide the Western Slope in half, with a proposed 2nd Congressional District encompassing northwest Colorado counties as far south and west as Garfield and as far east as Larimer and Boulder. Portions of Summit County would also be in the proposed 2nd District. 

A proposed 3rd Congressional District, meanwhile, would include all of Mesa, Eagle and Pitkin counties and sweep southeast to include the entire San Luis Valley and Pueblo. 

Christian Reece, executive director of the nonprofit Club 20, a Western Slope organization that has advocated for keeping the entire region in one district, said her group is opposed to grouping northwest Colorado with urban Boulder and Broomfield counties. 

“Their economies, culture and federal issues are starkly different and the 2nd (Congressional District) as drawn will drown out the rural voice in this region,” Reece said.  

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Given the number of wide-ranging proposals the commission received, the map is “the best possible outcome they could have come up with,” said Sara Blackhurst, president and CEO of Action 22, which represents interests in southern Colorado.

“Depending on who you talk to, this is either one rural district, or three rural districts,” said Blackhurst, who believes the proposed 3rd district will strengthen representation for southern communities.

She also has many concerns with the map, such as how it groups small counties like Baca alongside wealthier counties in the 4th Congressional District. She’s concerned, Blackhurst said, but knows that not every disparity can be resolved.  

“That just means we’re going to really have to work hard to get whoever is going to represent that (district) to remember Baca, and those Kansas-border counties that often get neglected,” she said. 

Those favoring a southern district argue that it would elevate the voices of the region’s historic Hispanic and Native American communities, and allow for good representation of a rural region with economic needs that are distinctly different from the western and eastern parts of the state. 

Mark Gaber, director of redistricting at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, said his preliminary look at the map suggests there are issues that persist from the earlier staff proposal. In the latest map, he said, Latino votes are still diluted.  

While the percentage of Latino residents in the 3rd and 8th districts would be increased in the latest proposal compared to the first map, Gaber argues the new map would dilute those votes by drawing Hispanic voters into the same district with white voters who “vote strongly against Latino preferences.”

The 3rd District would be 26% Hispanic and the 8th would be 38% under the proposal. That’s compared to the initial proposal, where the 3rd district was 15% Hispanic and the 8th district 30%.

For example, the proposed 3rd Congressional District in southern Colorado would include both Pueblo and Mesa counties, Gaber said. He also pointed to changes in a proposed 8th Congressional District that add “a host of white voters that the data shows vote against Latino voters’ choice.” 

“In some ways, this one seems to be worse than the original proposal,” said Gaber, whose group submitted its own map proposal with the Colorado League of United Latin American Citizens. 

The latest map would also keep together some communities that were divided in the previous map. The city of Aurora, which spans three counties, would be located entirely in the 6th Congressional District under the new proposal. Jefferson County is kept intact in the 7th Congressional District whereas it was split between the 7th and 8th districts in the first map. 

Here’s more on how the map would divide Colorado:

  • The 1st District would include most of Denver, as well as Holly Hills and most of Glendale in Arapahoe County.
  • The 2nd District would include all of Boulder, Broomfield, Grand, Jackson, Moffat, Rio Blanco and Routt counties. It also would include western Larimer County, north and western Garfield County, and parts of Summit County, including Breckenridge.
  • The 3rd District would include all of Alamosa, Archuleta, Conejos, Costilla, Crowley, Custer, Delta, Dolores, Eagle, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Huerfano, La Plata, Las Animas, Mesa, Mineral, Montezuma, Montrose, Otero, Ouray, Pitkin, Pueblo, Saguache, San Juan and San Miguel counties. It also would include about 26,000 people from Garfield County.
  • The 4th District would include all of Baca, Bent, Cheyenne, Elbert, Kiowa, Kit Carson, Lincoln, Logan, Morgan, Phillips, Prowers, Sedgwick, Washington and Yuma counties. It also would include most of Douglas County, Fort Collins and nearby Larimer County areas, about 48,000 Weld County residents, about 10,000 eastern Adams County residents and about 8,700 eastern El Paso County residents.
  • The 5th District would include most of El Paso County, including all of Colorado Springs.
  • The 6th District would include  most of Arapahoe County and parts of Douglas, Jefferson and Adams counties. The entire city of Aurora would be in the district as well as Centennial and parts of Highlands Ranch and Littleton.
  • The 7th District would include all of Chaffee, Clear Creek, Fremont, Gilpin, Lake, Park and Teller counties. But it also would include most of Jefferson County, and about 6,000 people from Summit County.
  • The new 8th District would include most of Adams and Weld counties, including all of Thornton, Greeley, Commerce City, Northglenn, Brighton and other north suburban cities. There would also be a small slice of north Denver and a bit of Larimer County included. 

Reactions from Republicans and Democrats

The new map includes some big changes for both political parties. 

Colorado Republican Party Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown on Sunday emailed members of the party to urge them to comment on the new map. 

“Unfortunately, the commissioners chose to put the interests of the urban Front Range first by diluting the voice of rural Colorado and completely changed the map from the first preliminary Congressional maps,” she wrote. 

On the other hand, Alan Philp, a lobbyist representing the Republican-leaning Colorado Neighborhood Coalition, commended the nonpartisan staff for the map’s competitive nature. 

Voters in the proposed 3rd Congressional District voted for Republicans over Democrats by a differential of 5.5 percentage points, according to an analysis by nonpartisan staff, while voters in the proposed 7th Congressional District cast ballot for Democrats over Republicans by 5.2 percentage points.

And voters in the proposed 8th Congressional District voted for Democrats over Republicans by 1.5 percentage points. 

“They created two highly competitive districts, one of which, CD 8, is a strong Hispanic influence district,” Philp said. “This process has several weeks to go, and it’s likely the maps will change again.”

MORE: The latest draft of Colorado’s congressional map draws Lauren Boebert and Joe Neguse into the same district

But that competitive advantage could depend on a decision by the Colorado GOP later this month on whether to hold a statewide primary in which unaffiliated voters may participate. 

Party activists are proposing forgoing the primary in favor of using caucuses and assemblies of party members to select 2022 general election candidates. The Republican central committee will vote on the proposal Sept. 18.

Some longtime Republicans fear that forgoing the party’s primary contests could lead to nominees who don’t appeal to unaffiliated voters, who make up Colorado’s largest voting bloc.

Some lobbyists affiliated with Democrats praised what they described as important progress in the latest proposal compared to the preliminary proposal released in June. 

“This map creates open seats in two districts and, while it’s not finalized, it’s a reasonable start that shows the nonpartisan staff was listening critically to more than 100 hour of testimony from three dozen public hearings,” said Curtis Hubbard, a lobbyist for Fair Lines Colorado, a Democratic group.

Marco Dorado, Colorado state director for All On The Line, an affiliate of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, called the map an “encouraging step forward” to reflect the state’s “growing and diversifying population.”

“Colorado’s preliminary congressional map marks critical movement toward a final map that incorporates community input as required by Amendment Y. We’re glad to see that the preliminary map attempts to reflect testimony provided about the state’s various communities of interest,” Dorado said. 

The map proposal, while far from final, also spurred some early campaign appeals. 

Right after the plan was released Friday, Neguse tweeted and sent emails soliciting donations off the news that he and Boebert might end up in a reconfigured 2nd District that favors Democrats. 

During Monday evening’s meeting of the congressional commission, the Garfield County Republican tweeted about the map’s proposed changes to Western Slope districts. 

“Redistricting update: First it was adding part of Boulder, now it’s all of Boulder,” Boebert wrote in a tweet. “The Dems are so worried about me I suspect the next redistricting map will include Berkeley, California, too. Don’t worry rural Colorado, I got your back!”

As noted above, candidates don’t have to live in the congressional district they run in, so Boebert could still run in the 3rd District and Buck in the 4th.

Opportunities for public comment, what’s next

The commission will hold four public hearings this week to gather feedback on the latest proposal. 

After this week, the commission has not planned any additional in-person hearings, although people can continue to submit feedback online. 

To testify, people must register 24 hours in advance. Remote participation registration will close when the meetings begin.

Here are the dates and times up for the upcoming meetings:

  • 6 – 9 p.m. Tuesday for residents of the 1st Congressional District at the state Capitol in Denver, or via Zoom
  • 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. Wednesday for residents of the 4th and 5th districts via Zoom, at the Limon Community Center or the Fountain Library
  • 1 – 4 p.m. Thursday for residents of the 2nd and 3rd districts via Zoom, at the Eagle Community Center or the Grand Lake Center
  • 9 a.m. to noon Friday for residents of the 6th and 7th districts via Zoom, at the Thornton Community Center or the Community College of Aurora

The congressional commission also has virtual meetings scheduled for 2 p.m. on Wednesday and Friday this week.

If eight of 12 commissioners don’t adopt the current plan or a variation after the initial public hearings, a second staff plan will be released Sept. 15 and a third, if necessary, on Sept. 23. The deadline to adopt a plan is Sept. 28, with submission to the Colorado Supreme Court on Oct. 1. 

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 10:50 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021 to correct the number of competitive districts under the new draft map.

Sandra Fish

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @fishnette

Thy Vo

Thy Vo is a freelance journalist and former Colorado Sun staff member. Twitter: @thyanhvo