Opinion

Opinion: Missouri Congressional redistricting has long been divisive

The extended Missouri Senate filibusters about congressional redistricting is a reminder about how bitter and divisive this issue can be.

This year it has involved an historically long Senate filibuster, objections by women legislators about the tone of the debate, a tweet by the governor’s communications director that escalated the gender issue and repeated arguments that the issue should focus on tossing out the Democratic U.S. House speaker.

The 2020 U.S Census data forces the state to redraw congressional districts to adjust district lines to reflect population shifts.

Missouri legislators might want to reflect on the frustrations of past colleagues about redistricting.

The year after the 1970 census, the first year I covered redistricting, the legislature failed to redraw the districts. A panel of three federal judges drew up the plan.

It prompted Missouri’s Republican Attorney General John Danforth to suggest that the federal judges should draw the maps “based by a computer.”

One decade later, federal judges again drew districts after the legislature’s redistricting failure.

As one newspaper reported in 1982, Senate President Pro Tem Norman Merrell concluded “I don’t think the legislature should have to do it.”

The Kansas City Star reported that several of his colleagues agreed.

While the legislature proposed creation of a bipartisan commission to draw the congressional districts, Missouri voters overwhelmingly rejected the constitutional amendment on the November 1982 ballot.

Given the current legislative quagmire, I wonder if voters today might be more supportive of taking the highly partisan issue of congressional redistricting out of the hands of the state legislature.

As politically intense and heated as were those prior redistricting debates, this year has been far nastier than I remember.

This year it led a bipartisan group of women Senators to speak out about the hostility of the filibuster.

Their message was reinforced by a tweet by the governor’s communications director.

“Once again, it’s the Missouri’s Senate’s women who restore common sense. It’s about time we stop tip-toeing to a few men’s fragile egos,” Kelli Jones tweeted.

Another component of this debate was voiced by Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz about some of his colleagues: “There are a number of people in here who have aspirations to run for Congress…there are a number of people that are looking for future aspirations to run for Congress.”

There is, however, a much bigger issue.

A fundamental issue in redistricting is assuring that districts represent “communities of interests.”

That term was used in a 1995 U.S. Supreme Court striking down Georgia redistricting plan because of race discrimination.

While that phrase has been used against splitting Black residents among districts preventing election of a Black member of Congress, it has been given a more extensive meaning.

A “community of interest” can be composed of farmers and others involved in agriculture. It can be composed of a geographic area with a unique history that binds a community together.

For the St. Louis area, traffic congestion and mass transportation needs could be a significant issue of concern — unlike my town of Jefferson City where a “rush hour” lasts only a few minutes.

Establishing a congressional district based on communities of interests assures major concerns such as dealing with mass transportation or agriculture issues have representation in Congress.

But this year, the redistricting debate has been dominated by a quite different focus.

Senate conservative Republicans have argued that the districts should represent the domination of Republicans in Missouri where all but one statewide elected official is Republican and Republican state legislators constitute a substantial majority of the state House and Senate.

Many conservative Republican legislators use the term “Pelosi map” to attack the redistricting map approved by the Missouri House that would retain the two urban-area congressional districts represented by Black Democrats.

Nancy Pelosi, of course, is the speaker of the Democrat-controlled U.S. House that Republicans hope to remove by capturing GOP control of the U.S. House in the 2022 elections.

So, in a way, Republicans have redefined “communities of interest” to mean the entire state and national opposition to Pelosi.

Phill Brooks

Essentially, this approach makes statewide party ideology or national political objectives rather than the unique issues in a community to be the “communities of interest,” for drawing congressional districts.

This commentary by Phill Brooks is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.

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