Census likely to shift congressional districts

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 29, 2001

The Associated Press


Thursday, March 29, 2001

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ST. PAUL – The Mississippi River will run through the center of a debate over how Minnesota’s eight congressional districts are redrawn to reflect population shifts over the past decade.

Should it divide Minneapolis and St. Paul as it has for years, or should it be the glue that holds together a single, urban congressional district?

That’s what lawmakers will struggle with over the next couple of months as they draw new maps to make each of Minnesota’s eight district represent 614,935 people – plus or minus five.

The goal is to make every vote equal by having each lawmaker represent roughly the same number of constituents. The outcome can influence the strength of each party in government, and consequently, the policy priorities that win out.

Republicans want to condense the Twin Cities, which have provided Democrats with two reliable seats, into a single district. The GOP would draw three or four districts in predominantly Republican suburbs and leave the other three or four districts in greater Minnesota. Democrats are sure to resist such a plan.

The congressional district that includes Minneapolis is about 57,116 residents short of the magic number needed for a district, according to census figures released Wednesday. The district including St. Paul has about 37,858 fewer people than needed.

The population of a combined Minneapolis/St. Paul district would be very close to that ideal district number.

"The cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis are right on the money," said Bill Walsh, spokesman for the state Republican Party.

But the Mississippi is more than a physical barrier, said DFL Party Chairman Mike Erlandson. It’s cultural and historical. People who live in the Twin Cities metropolitan area have strong ties to their side of the river.

"By and large a lot of people who live and work in St. Paul don’t go to Minneapolis and vice versa," he said.

The state now has two urban districts, two suburban and four outside the Twin Cities and DFLers believe it should stay that way.

"You should tinker as minimally as possible," Erlandson said.

Erlandson – also chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo, D-Minneapolis – said each urban district should be melded with additional surrounding suburbs.

Under his scenario, the 4th District (St. Paul area) would pick up residents from the 6th District, which has 106,060 people too many. The 5th District (Minneapolis area), meanwhile, would expand into some of the 3rd District, which is 27,118 over.

"The only logic for combining Minneapolis and St. Paul is to shove all the urban people into one district," he said. "You’ve decreased the urban voice, the voice of minorities."

The way redistricting plays out is likely to affect political careers, and Minnesota’s congressional delegation members are already looking at logical ways to protect their turf.

Bill Harper, chief of staff to Rep. Betty McCollum, D-St. Paul, said the 4th District already includes 10 percent of Dakota County, so it makes sense to expand further into the area. That might include picking up Inver Grove Heights, which is currently in the 6th District, represented by Democrat Bill Luther. It wraps around the eastern suburbs of the Twin Cities.

"We’ve got to pick up 38,000 people," Harper said. "Luther’s got to give up 106,000."

Similarly, he suggested, the 5th District could pick up seats from the 3rd, Republican Jim Ramstad’s district.

He wouldn’t speculate on what would happen if Sabo and McCollum wind up in the same district. "It’s such a far-fetched scenario," Harper said.

In greater Minnesota, the only district that grew was the 8th District, which covers a huge chunk of the state, including all of northeastern Minnesota and extending all the way down to Chisago County north of the Twin Cities. It has an exra 9,095 people above the ideal district population.

Minnesota currently has five Democrats and three Republicans in Congress.

Craig Grau, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota in Duluth, said he worries about reducing the number of seats from four to three in greater Minnesota.

"I know we count people and not trees, but getting around is hard," he said, adding that Minnesota’s 8th District, represented by James Oberstar, is already larger than many eastern states.

As the rural Minnesota districts get larger, the people representing those areas have to spend more resources to keep in touch with constituents.

Collin Peterson, who represents northwest Minnesota’s 7th District, and Oberstar already have three and four Minnesota offices, respectively, compared with their counterparts’ one. And while Twin Cities representatives can swing through many communities in a day to explain a piece of legislation, Peterson and Oberstar need several days or an airplane.

Minnesota is in an unususal position this year as the only state with three groups sitting at the table – a Republican House, a Democratic Senate and Independence Party Gov. Jesse Ventura, who can veto any legislative plan.