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The Colorado State Capitol is seen on Thursday, August 19, 2021, in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

A Republican state lawmaker worried about being drawn out of his district gave party activists talking points on how he would shape new legislative maps. 

At a public hearing in Durango, a number of current and former La Plata County Democratic Party officers testified before Colorado’s independent congressional and legislative redistricting commissions but didn’t mention their partisan ties. 

And Republican operatives working for a nonprofit with undisclosed funders are under investigation for allegedly failing to report their lobbying activities. 

These are all examples of the kind of political gamesmanship that the drafters of Colorado’s Amendments Y and Z said they wanted to avoid. But those proponents say the partisan activity swirling around Colorado’s two new redistricting commissions was both exactly what they expected and also fundamentally different from years past because of how the process has been restructured. 

“When Amendments Y and Z came together, nobody believed you could get politics completely out of the process,” said Rob Witwer, a former state lawmaker who served as a Republican member of the 2011 Reapportionment Commission that worked on the current versions of Colorado’s legislative maps. He backed the constitutional amendments and is now unaffiliated.

Ten and 20 years ago, it seemed both parties lined up public testimony to reflect the outcome they wanted to see in the maps, Witwer said. The new system, which requires an eight-member supermajority of each 12-member panel to approve a map, has forced everyone to give up something.

“In the past, there was no incentive to compromise. Under the new rules, there can’t be a final map without compromise,” Witwer said, noting that each map needs support from Democrats, Republicans and at least two unaffiliated members. 

But critics say the new rules have only relinquished a highly political process to citizen commissioners who don’t have the expertise to parse a game still being played by lobbyists and party insiders.

“You still have the influence makers, you still have small groups coming in and putting up people to speak — same as it was before,” said Rick Ridder, a Democratic political strategist who opposed Amendments Y and Z. “Only this time the people making decisions have less political knowledge.”

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)

There was greater disagreement among Democratic groups over what priorities to push, said Ridder, especially over keeping incumbent congressional representatives in office and creating opportunities for growing constituencies of Latino voters. 

“There is always a dynamic in redistricting where there is the desire by incumbents to maintain the areas they know and have, and which they have historically won, and the need to create new areas of opportunity,” Ridder said. 

He also pointed to the new U.S. House map recently adopted by the Colorado Supreme Court as an example of how the process hasn’t changed much. 

“Honestly, the congressional districts very much stayed the same, other than the creation of the 8th Congressional District,” Ridder said. 

Scott Martinez, an attorney and a proponent of Amendments Y and Z, who has drawn maps for Democrats that were adopted in past redistricting years, said the measures achieved their goals in large part. 

But Martinez, who only observed the process this year, also agreed that the commissions and nonpartisan staff relied on the status quo of existing congressional and legislative districts.

“I believe the staff did a great job,” he said. “But they took no risks, and there are no incentives for the staff to take any risks.”

Politics was always going to be a part of the process 

There are plenty of examples of Republican or Democratic political activists, candidates or former elected officials getting involved in redistricting this year, but the new process limited some of the behind-the-scenes interaction that dominated past cycles. 

Before Amendments Y and Z, the state legislature drew congressional maps and the reapportionment commission, made up of people appointed mostly by elected officials, drew legislative maps. But the process was often so contentious and politicized that the plans would end up mired in lawsuits, forcing the Colorado Supreme Court to intervene.

In 2011, legislative maps drawn by the Reapportionment Commission were sent back to the panel by the Supreme Court after legal challenges from Colorado Republicans. The court later selected a set of maps drawn by Democrats for adoption. And the Denver District Court selected a new congressional map that year after the state legislature failed to agree on a map and both parties sued, a decision later affirmed by the Supreme Court.  

The Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center is seen on Tuesday, July 20, 2021, in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Rosemary Rodriguez, a Democrat and former Denver Clerk and Recorder who chaired the 2001 Reapportionment Commission, recalled an instance where a legislator in the state House approached her with a map that would be favorable for their future bid for the state Senate. 

“There was no prohibition on legislators coming to commissioners, and so they did — things like that were very commonplace,” Rodriguez said of her time serving on the commission. “It was the most political thing I’ve ever done in my life.” 

While the constitutional amendments don’t bar elected officials or political parties from contacting members of the two redistricting commissions, many elected officials say they avoided reaching out to commissioners or speaking up publicly to avoid the appearance of trying to influence the process. 

But lawmakers were watching the process closely. 

State Rep. Matt Soper, a Delta Republican, lamented the new hands-off approach during a July 18 virtual meeting where he was invited to talk about redistricting to a group of Western Slope GOP activists. Video of the meeting was shared with several media outlets.

“I’m going to tell you this, but I never want you to mention that you heard this coming from me,” Soper said, before giving activists talking points. “I’ve heard over and over again, they don’t want to hear from incumbents … all of us are relying on everyone on this call to make the arguments we can’t make.” 

State Rep. Matt Soper, a Delta Republican, reviews a proposed amendment on the floor of the Colorado House on June 2, 2021. (Thy Vo, The Colorado Sun)

Current and former lawmakers, local party activists and lobbyists were also involved in drafting many of the maps submitted and considered by the commission. 

A group of Pueblo Democrats pushed for a U.S. House map that would create a southern Colorado congressional district. They testified at public hearings, contacted commissioners and posted messages online to promote their proposal. 

Rodriguez volunteered for the Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy and Research Organization, a nonprofit that submitted several map proposals and was influential in pushing for changes to both congressional and legislative maps. 

State Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, a Commerce City Democrat, also volunteered for the group, and attended several public hearings. She also attended oral arguments before the state Supreme Court. 

Alan Philp, who has represented Republicans in Colorado redistricting for decades and worked this year as a lobbyist for the Republican-aligned nonprofit Colorado Neighborhood Coalition, helped draw maps submitted by the Colorado Farm Bureau. He also helped political advocates including Mario Nicolais and former state Rep. Kathleen Curry, proponents of Amendments Y and Z, draw a legislative map proposal. Nicolais is a columnist for The Colorado Sun.

Philp also sent text messages with suggestions for mapping ideas to a Republican member of the congressional redistricting commission, Jason Kelly of Alamosa, according to reporting by Colorado Politics

Many of the people testifying at public hearings also appeared to be organized by local political parties or interest groups.

“Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the people who showed up to testify at the hearings were folks organized by one party or the other,” Martinez said. “They’re the same people who showed up 10 years ago.”

Simon Tafoya, a Denver Democrat who served on the Independent Congressional Redistricting Commission, echoed some of Ridder’s concerns that future citizen commissions may struggle to distinguish partisan strategizing from testimony that’s the result of grassroots organizing.

“There was really no education that occurred for commissioners … and the understanding of how deep the game can be played,” said Tafoya, the only commissioner to vote against the new congressional map. “I think the voters of Colorado tried to make it (redistricting) less political, but I think what we’re going to see is more outside groups trying to manage the process from the outside.”

But that’s also how grassroots organizing and politics works, said Republican Bill Leone of Westminster, who served on the congressional commission. 

“We had lots and lots of organized groups coming to our meetings that were coordinating, orchestrating. … There’s nothing wrong with that. No matter what you do you can’t get the politics out of redistricting,” Leone said. “I think there was a learning curve, but (commissioners) caught on fairly quickly.”

A number of political and community groups also organized supporters through email newsletters and social media, sometimes attracting the attention of commissioners. 

Rural Colorado United, a Democratic political action committee opposing Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, tried to mobilize support for a congressional map submitted to the commission that would have created a competitive 3rd Congressional District spanning Colorado’s borders from east to west. Boebert represents the 3rd District.

After the group sent an email newsletter to supporters and chastised commissioners on Twitter, a number of similar comments in support of that map poured into the redistricting commission’s website. 

Toward the very end of the process, the leaders of both state parties became more directly involved. 

Colorado GOP Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown submitted a comment online questioning the credibility of Mario Carrera, the former unaffiliated chair of the 2011 Reapportionment Commission, who submitted legislative maps for consideration. The maps were introduced by unaffiliated Commissioner Amber McReynolds of Denver. 

“He is once again doing his part to help Colorado Democrats,” Burton Brown wrote in a comment that was also circulated by email among some legislative commissioners. 

Mario Carrera, the unaffiliated chair of the 2011 Reapportionment Commission, speaks on Tuesday, August 10, 2021, at La Alma-Lincoln Park in Denver. Leaders from the Latino community showed legislative maps drawn by CLLARO to be submitted to the Independent Legislative Redistricting Commission. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

The Colorado Democratic Party, meanwhile, sent an email accusing two Republican commissioners on the legislative redistricting commission, Hunter Barnett and Aislinn Kottwitz, of working with Republican Party operatives and “attempting to gerrymander the Colorado Senate and House, ensuring Republican control of the state assembly for the next decade.”

That missive resulted in hundreds of comments pouring in to the commission website criticizing a map that was drawn by not only Barnett, Kottwitz and another Republican, but also two unaffiliated commissioners and one Democratic commissioner. And tension from the episode spilled over into commissioners’ interactions with each other as they pushed to approve a map in the final days. 

“I did, in fact, draw the map. Not Alan Philp,” Kottwitz, a commissioner from Windsor, texted to McReynolds after the commission approved a Senate map Oct. 11. 

“I have never said that Alan drew your map — I believe that you did (draw it) because you said you did,” McReynolds responded. 

While the more partisan activity made it harder to sift through public feedback, legislative Commissioner Gary Horvath doesn’t think it affected the quality of the final maps. 

“I think that’s part of the ugliness that goes along with this,” said Horvath, a Broomfield Democrat who declined to speak at length about the process because of the state Supreme Court’s pending opinion on legislative maps. Horvath was the only commissioner to vote against the approved state House map.

Many commissioners who declined to speak to The Colorado Sun for this story also cited the pending court decision. 

“It’s a good thing when a party is involved — they get people out and that’s important, and it creates discussion,” Horvath said. “I wish they were involved in a more constructive way.” 

Who counts as a lobbyist? The rules are squishy. 

Paying lobbyists and other organizers to influence commissioners is another way political parties and interest groups can try to influence the redistricting process. Amendments Y and Z required people to register as lobbyists and file reports about who they were being paid by, but many groups had complaints about the rules and how they were enforced by the Colorado Secretary of State. 

The regulations require anyone who is “contracted for or receives compensation to communicate directly or indirectly” with commissioners or their staff to register as a lobbyist and file regular disclosures. It also requires unpaid volunteers and people who might indirectly influence the commission to register. 

Ultimately, only 35 people registered as lobbyists with the Secretary of State. The dearth of disclosures led to two complaints and many questions about whether all the people trying to influence the commissions were complying with disclosure requirements.

“I think everybody was playing by a different interpretation of the rules,” said Ridder, the Democratic strategist. 

Two of the lobbyists who registered — Mona Moffatt and Martha Fitzgerald — reported no clients or payment, and another dozen reported receiving no payments for their work. The other 21 lobbyists reported receiving a total of about $157,000 from about a dozen clients. 

Philp’s group was the subject of a complaint alleging the coalition was engaging in undisclosed lobbying activity. The complaint claimed Philp didn’t declare his full income from lobbying and that two others affiliated with the Republican-aligned Colorado Neighborhood Coalition, former House Speaker Frank McNulty and former state Sen. Greg Brophy, should have registered as lobbyists. 

The Colorado Attorney General’s Office is seeking an administrative hearing on the allegations against McNulty and Brophy, but dismissed the accusations against Philp.

A Republican group, Defend Colorado, filed a lobbying complaint against CLLARO, the Latino advocacy group. The complaint alleges the group’s executive director, Mike Cortés, and board member María González failed to register as lobbyists. It also cited an instance where Alex Apodaca-Cobell, the group’s lobbyist and mapping expert, testified at a public hearing in July as a citizen before registering as a lobbyist in late August. 

That complaint is pending.

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)

It’s not surprising that political activists and lawmakers were the most interested in a process that affects future elections. But better enforcement of lobbying rules would have given the public a better sense of all the people and groups spending or organizing to influence how maps were drawn, said Amanda Gonzalez, a redistricting lobbyist who serves as executive director of Colorado Common Cause. 

While Soper’s comments were circulated among the media, other lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were likely doing the same thing, she said. “They’re entitled to do that, they’re getting people involved in the process, but we just need transparency about it.”

Amanda Gonzalez also pointed to lobbying regulations that may have caused confusion among nonprofit and community groups. For instance, the Secretary of State’s website notes that members of community groups who send emails about redistricting may have to register if the messages encourage people to take a position on a map or contain talking points. 

But there’s an inherent tension in creating such broad rules, Gonzalez said, citing concerns that they might deter grassroots organizing and participation from citizen groups. 

“We were worried that someone who is, for example, the president of their PTA would wonder, ‘I have to be a lobbyist, this is scary, I’m not going to get involved,’” Gonzalez said. “Thankfully that’s not what we saw happen. But, on the other side, I think it’s apparent that there wasn’t a lot of enforcement and people didn’t think there were a lot of teeth (to the rules).”

Leone, however, said many of the lobbyists and their partisan ties are well-known. And if he was once skeptical that the panel of citizen commissioners could come to an agreement, particularly in a year when the timeline for map-drawing was cut short by delays, Leone believes the process helped push them to make compromises. 

“There was a time when I thought, this is just not going to work very well … (and) the public hearings became a vehicle for manipulation by interest groups,” Leone said. “But by the time we got to the end … I could feel how the structure of the commission (helped us) gravitate toward a fairer map.”

All three of the maps approved by the two commissions got near-unanimous votes of approval.

“Can you point to some other place in American politics where, on something this contentious, you have this much consensus? I can’t find it,” Witwer said.

CORRECTION: This story was updated Nov. 10, 2021 at 10:50 a.m. to correct a statement about the 2011 congressional map. The map was approved by a Denver District Court judge. This story was also updated to correct who was the first redistricting lobbyist to register with the state this year. The lobbyist was Mark Grueskin.

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...

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