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Reapportionment

02/25/02 12:00AM By Allen Gilbert

I'm never quite sure whether to applaud, or chuckle, when someone says we should take partisanship out of politics.

Politics, by nature, is partisan. It's inherent in democracy. We agree to bicker and argue to make our decisions, rather than to throw people in jail or shoot at one another.

However, how the political decision-making process is conducted can have an enormous impact on a society's overall sense of well being. And that's what's so troubling about the redistricting fight underway in Montpelier. It's got a bad smell to it.

A nonpartisan commission, the Legislative Apportionment Board, was established to ensure that gerrymandering wouldn't take place. But House Republicans have rejected the Board's plan -- as well as the set of principles agreed to at the start of the redistricting process.

House Republicans have made no excuses for drawing legislative districts to give their party election advantages. Towns were grouped into districts that look like snakes and pretzels. Mountains separating towns were ignored. The wishes of town residents were dismissed.

For example, one particularly absurd configuration involves the Mad River Valley towns of Warren, Waitsfield, and Fayston -- triplets joined at the hip, if ever there were. Republicans proposed to tear the towns apart. Waitsfield was shoved into a district with Northfield. Warren was tossed in with Lincoln, Ripton, and Granville. Fayston went to Huntington, Hinesburg, and Buell's Gore.

Look at a highway map and you'll see the problems with this scheme. For example, to shake some hands first at a chicken pie supper in Northfield and then at a flatbread soiree in Waitsfield, a candidate would need to drive 30 miles up through Berlin and Moretown, or 66 miles down through Roxbury, Brookfield, Braintree, Randolph, Bethel, Stockbridge, Rochester, Hancock, Granville, and Warren.

Republicans took over the House in the 2000 elections, and they want to keep it that way. Republican Government Operations Committee Chairman Cola Hudson said, "To the victor go the spoils." Majority leader John LeBarge told Democrats, "When you're in the minority, there are some things you have to realize."

Were the Democrats as vindictive towards Republicans in 1992, when the last redistricting was done? Well, it's true that Democrat Ralph Wright was speaker of the House then, and that he came from Massachusetts, the state where gerrymandering was invented. However, it was impossible for Wright to do much damage. Republicans held a majority of seats in the House, even though Wright had been elected speaker. The 1992 redistricting plan was voted out of the House Government Operations Committee on a unanimous vote, and it was approved in the House by a 9-to-1 margin. 80 percent of Republicans voting on the bill approved it.

This year, such felicity is absent. A court fight is brewing, especially since the governor's race could end up in the Legislature -- where every vote counts.

This is Allen Gilbert.

--Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer and parent who is active in education issues.





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