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GOP takes aim at Carnahan, 3rd district in redistricting

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 21, 2010 - At the Republican national convention in the summer of 2000, then-Missouri party chair Ann Wagner made news when she waved what she called her "dream map'' to redraw the state's congressional lines and, in effect, do away with the Democratic-controlled 3rd congressional district seat then occupied by powerful U.S. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt.

Ten years later, Gephardt has moved on. But Wagner -- now competing to head the Republican National Committee -- may finally get her wish.

Fellow Missouri Republicans are making no secret that the 3rd District and the Democratic congressman now holding that seat -- U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan -- are their prime targets now that the U.S. Census Bureau has announced the state will lose one of its nine congressional seats.

Officially, leaders of both parties lamented the fact that Missouri will soon have only eight congressional seats. The state hasn't had that few since 1850, and at one time had twice as many.

Political science professor Ken Warren, who specializes in demographics, said that the detailed population figures that the Census Bureau will release later for Missouri will most likely show lower growth, or declines, in rural and northern parts of the state -- which have seen losses for decades. But those figures won't mean much, he added, since the Republican-controlled Legislature now sees an opportunity to fulfill its dream to curb Democratic clout in the St. Louis area.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, a Democrat, confirmed as much on his blog. But while acknowledging speculation that the city may lose one of its two resident Democratic representatives, the mayor added -- perhaps with a bit of wishful thinking, "I think it is equally possible that the change happens in some other part of the state."

Carnahan issued a cautious statement saying, "This is just the first step in a long process. My hope is that everyone involved is focused solely on making sure the map is drawn in a way that best serves the people and communities of Missouri. After all, you have to draw the lines according to where the people are.

"For my part, I am going to continue working closely with my Missouri colleagues at every level of government in both political parties to make sure that the new map is fair and designed to ensure strong representation for the people of this region," Carnahan added.

Still, Warren and other experts say that Missouri Republicans may have little political choice in targeting the 3rd. The GOP will want to protect its six members of the U.S. House. Of the three Democratic seats, the 3rd District is the easiest -- politically and legally -- to carve up.

Neighboring Illinois also got word Tuesday that it is losing one of its 19 congressional seats. But unlike in Missouri, Democrats control Illinois' state government and its Legislature. As a result, the likely target will be a mid-state Republican congressman who could count on little help in Springfield, Ill.

Vetoes and Voting Rights

The region's real redistricting donnybrook will likely be in Jefferson City, where GOP leaders will seek to outmaneuver Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat. By law, Nixon can veto the proposed congressional map and send the process to a judicial panel.

State Rep. John Diehl, chairman of the new House committee charged with redrawing the congressional lines, sought a conciliatory tone as he told reporters that there were "no preconceived outcomes'' and that Republican House leaders were committed to drafting a new map that was "fair to all Missourians."

Diehl, R-Town and Country, said that public hearings will be held over the coming months as the panel hears from experts and examines various scenarios for drawing up lines for eight districts.

But Diehl also noted that the GOP would attempt to prevent a judicial takeover by, if necessary, trying to override any Nixon veto of the Legislature's final map.

Republicans also may be able to amass the necessary votes to do it. Republicans already have a veto-proof edge in the Missouri Senate (26 Republican and eight Democrats) and are just three votes shy in the state House (106 Republicans and 57 Democrats).

The extra House votes needed might come from St. Louis Democrats like state Rep. Jamilah Nasheed, who has been named to Diehl's committee. Nasheed praised Diehl's approach, which she said she believed would be fair.

The legislator also emphasized that her prime concerns include protecting the 1st District, represented by U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis. He is among two members of Congress from Missouri who are African-American.

Diehl told reporters Tuesday that the 1st District is a special case because it is the state's only district where a majority of the residents are African-American. By law, said Diehl, the legislature will likely want to protect that district and avoid running afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act.

Diehl said that the 5th District, represented by the state's other African-American in the U.S. House -- Democrat Emanuel Cleaver -- doesn't require the same legal and political protections because it appears still to be a majority-white district.

Diehl, by the way, is well-versed in Missouri election law. He is a lawyer and former chairman of the St. Louis County Election Board.

He also resides in the 2nd District, as does his counterpart in the Missouri Senate, Republican Scott Rupp of St. Charles County, who heads that chamber's redistricting panel.

The prominence of Rupp and Diehl adds another regional angle to the likely redistricting battle. In fact, Warren predicted that Carnahan could find himself in a situation where a chunk of his district ends up in the 2nd, now the turf of U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Town and Country.

The 3rd District's Precarious Past

Such a predicament for Carnahan is similar to the redistricting situation 10 years ago. Republicans already controlled the state Senate -- but not the state House or governor's mansion -- by late January 2001, soon after census results were announced.

Although Missouri retained all of its congressional seats, Gephardt and his staff -- notably national political director Joyce Aboussie -- were mindful of Wagner's wish and the changing demographics of the 3rd.

Aboussie and Gephardt fought their redistricting fight on two fronts, and largely without the legislature. With the help of labor, Gephardt cut a deal with Clay to obtain a larger portion of Democratic-leaning central St. Louis County. Labor leaders were present during a noteworthy private meeting between the two congressmen.

Aboussie also forged an alliance with the then-top aide of the 8th District member of Congress, Republican Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau. Emerson's staff drew up their dream boundary lines, then offered the same perk to several outstate Republican members of the Missouri delegation.

The resulting Gephardt-friendly map was pushed through the state House and Senate and signed by then-Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat.

The instrumental Emerson aide, by the way, was Lloyd Smith, who now is executive director of the Missouri Republican Party.

Republican consultant John Hancock, who also was involved in the 2000 redistricting, said this year's actions will be far different. It's one thing to tweak the boundaries of existing districts, he said. But when a congressional seat is lost, "you're erasing all the lines and starting from scratch."

Democratic consultant Mike Kelley believes that members of Congress will have little or no influence during this year's redistricting process, while Republican legislators like Diehl wield most of the power. The result will put Nixon in a more difficult position as the major Democratic protector, Kelley said.

Nixon sought Tuesday to stick with the conciliatory approach that has dominated his public comments about Republicans.

"Today's census announcement confirms that Missouri is a growing state. While our growth rate of 7 percent over the past 10 years far exceeds the growth rate across the Midwest, we unfortunately fell short of the benchmark for keeping nine seats in the U.S. House of Representatives," the governor said. "In the coming months, the General Assembly will begin the important process of redrawing congressional district lines, and that process must move forward openly, transparently and fairly."

George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University in Springfield, says the Republican-leaning shift in the southern part of the 3rd District raises the question of how long Democrats could hold the district anyway -- even without the loss of a congressional seat.

That dilemma will also be on Nixon's mind, Connor predicted. The governor, who is running for re-election in 2012, will desperately need the African-American votes that largely are in the 5th and 1st Districts, the professor said.

If the GOP legislators get their African-American colleagues to back a new map, Connor continued, Nixon may not want to veto the measure -- even if it destroys the 3rd District.

Warren said the situation, like other redistricting battles in the past, exemplifies how the partisan process often pits politicians within the same party. When it comes to redistricting, he added, "they will eat their own to guarantee their own survival."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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