Politics & Government

June 8, 2012

Court releases redistricting plans; two Wichita-area Senate showdowns avoided

New court-drawn district maps have scrambled the political landscape of Kansas, pitting numerous legislative incumbents against each other and leaving other seats empty.

New court-drawn district maps have scrambled the political landscape of Kansas, pitting numerous legislative incumbents against each other and leaving other seats empty.

Of the 125 districts in the state House, 23 now have more than one incumbent and 25 seats are vacant.

On the Senate side, four of the 40 districts now have more than one incumbent and four are vacant.

In Sedgwick County, the new maps headed off a possible battle between two south-central Kansas incumbent Republican senators, but left two Senate challengers drawn out of the districts where they planned to run.

Some lawmakers are decidedly unhappy with their new districts.

“It’s just like a drunken monkey wrote it,” said Rep. Joe Seiwert, R- Pretty Prairie, who was thrown into a new District 101 with another incumbent Republican and good friend, Dan Kerschen of Garden Plain.

Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the state’s chief elections officer, called it “probably the most disruptive redistricting in Kansas history” but said he won’t appeal the new maps. And he said he had no authority to delay Monday’s filing deadline, or the Aug. 7 primary, to give candidates more time to decide what office they’re running for and to campaign.

The new districts were drawn by three federal court judges working out of Kansas City and released late Thursday.

The judges, forced to act when the Legislature failed to pass new district maps, rejected every map that had been put before them by the House or Senate and a late-filed map that had been passed through the governor’s office.

In their 206-page opinion, the judges wrote that they had tried to set politics aside and craft districts that were close to equal in population, while preserving communities of interest across the state.

“The Court recognizes that because it has tried to restore compact contiguous districts where possible, it is pushing a re-set button; its maps look different from those now in place,” the opinion said. “Some changes may not be popular and some people — perhaps many — will disagree that the Court has struck the appropriate balance. To those in that category — our fellow Kansans — we reiterate that the Court did not tread unreservedly into this political thicket. On short notice, with elections pending on the immediate horizon, we have acted solely to remedy a legislative default.”

Criticism of legislators

The Legislature is required to redraw districts every 10 years to account for population shifts revealed in the Census. But a bitter fight between moderate and conservative Republicans this year doomed any map from gaining approval in both houses and the governor’s signature.

The judges harshly criticized lawmakers for failing to act.

“While legislators publicly demurred that they had done the best they could, the impasse resulted from a bitter ideological feud — largely over new Senate districts,” the judges wrote. “The feud primarily pitted GOP moderates against their more conservative GOP colleagues. Failing consensus, the process degenerated into blatant efforts to gerrymander various districts for ideological political advantage and to serve the political ambitions of various legislators.”

The three judges on the panel are Chief Judge Kathryn Vratil and Senior Judge John Lungstrom from the Kansas City federal district court, and Mary Beck Briscoe, chief judge of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Incumbents and challengers who had already filed for election, but found themselves in new districts, have automatically been shifted to the new districts, said Kay Curtis, spokeswoman for Kobach.

To get off the ballot in the new districts, the candidates will have to file a signed, notarized letter withdrawing their candidacy.

If they change residence to run in the district where they originally filed, they’ll have to file the notice of withdrawal and then refile, paying a new filing fee or collecting new nomination petition signatures, Curtis said.

Legislators' reactions

The most contested map was for the Senate, where moderates hold a narrow majority and had used that to stave off some initiatives from the more conservative House and Gov. Sam Brownback.

Moderates favored a district map that kept conservative GOP challengers out of the Senate districts of Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita, and Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick.

The map approved by the judges does that.

Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, winds up a few blocks outside of Schodorf’s District 25, which sweeps from north-central Wichita through Riverside and into south Wichita.

Landwehr could not be reached for comment.

Schodorf said she was surprised that the map is as radically redrawn as it is.

“This is an example of what happens when two bodies don’t compromise,” she said. In an attempt to get a map that could clear the House, she had proposed an amendment to draw Landwehr into her district. The House voted the Senate’s plan down anyway.

Schodorf said she has come to the opinion that someone other than legislators should draw the districts, as is done in some other states.

“If I’m re-elected, I think I’ll push to have a different system where an independent panel does the maps,” she said.

Before the final maps were drawn, Landwehr had said she was considering trading houses with her son so she’d be in position to run against Schodorf.

Gary Mason, a Wichita businessman who wants to challenge McGinn in Senate District 31 north of Wichita, is moving to get back into the district after the new map put him about a mile outside the new boundaries.

Mason said he and his wife will rent a house in Park City and put their Wichita home up for sale, with an eye toward downsizing their home and moving to district permanently.

“There’s a rental agreement being drawn up as we speak,” he said.

McGinn said she wasn’t surprised because Mason had said earlier that he planned to move to challenge her.

“We just geared up knowing we’d have an opponent,” she said.

She said she was surprised by the amount of changes the judges made.

“I never thought it would turn out like this,” she said of the statewide dislocation of districts. “I just thought they’d make adjustments.”

District 31 lost significant chunks of Wichita and added communities northwest of Wichita, including Bentley, Mount Hope and Maize. The only one McGinn has represented in the past is Maize, which was part of her district when she was a county commissioner before moving to the Senate.

One area incumbent matchup avoided

Two area Senate conservatives got good news.

The final map approved by the Senate would have set up an incumbent-vs-incumbent matchup between Sens. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, and Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, in order to create a new district in rapidly growing Johnson County.

In redistricting parlance, putting two incumbents in the same district is called “collapsing” the district. Case law discourages courts from doing that to avoid the appearance of making political decisions on mapping.

The three-judge panel did decide to give Johnson County a new district but chose to collapse the 21st District along the Nebraska border in northeast Kansas. Politically, it’s a wash because the incumbent senator, Mark Taddiken, R-Clifton, announced that he won’t seek re-election anyway.

At stake overall is control of the Senate, scene of the moderate-vs-conservative battle that tied up the maps in the first place.

Conservative Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, announced that he would run for re-election and challenge for presidency of the Senate next year. Donovan’s new district sheds urban voters, moving his territory farther into the highly conservative suburbs west of Wichita.

“Wichita or Sedgwick County hasn’t had someone in top leadership for a long while,” said Donovan, who has been in the Legislature since 1993 and in the Senate since 1997.

The current Senate president is Steve Morris, a moderate senator from Hugoton. Donovan, chair of the Senate’s tax committee, and Morris, who has headed the Senate since 2004, were frequently locked in battles this past session over the tax plan.

Across the state, leading moderate Sen. John Vratil, a Leawood Republican, said he would not seek a fourth term. Rep. Pat Colloton, a Leawood Republican and moderate, announced she would run for the seat. She will face conservative Jeff Melcher.

Topeka, Lawrence stay in single district

On congressional districts, the judges avoided maps that split Topeka or Lawrence, as some of the Legislature’s maps would have done. Both cities are completely within the 2nd Congressional District.

The judges also drew Manhattan and with it, Kansas State University, into the western-Kansas-based 1st Congressional District.

Senate leaders had worried aloud that a dispute between House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and the 1st District’s representative, Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, could threaten future funding for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, a federal anti-terrorism lab under development adjacent to the university.

Huelskamp’s office has denied that there are any disputes between the speaker and the congressman that would threaten the lab’s funding.

The Wichita-based 4th District loses Montgomery County and part of Greenwood County in southeastern Kansas to the new boundaries. To the west, the district adds all of Stafford, Pratt, Barber, Comanche, Kiowa and Edwards counties, along with a sliver of southern Pawnee County.

The 3rd District covers Kansas City suburbs, including all of Johnson and Wyandotte counties and part of Miami County.

For the state Board of Education, the judges followed the longstanding procedure of basing the district lines on Senate districts. Four senatorial districts make up one Board of Education District, completing the 10-member state school board.

For state House districts, the judges shot down a map called “Cottonwood 1,” which passed the House and Senate but never went to the governor as negotiations over the Senate map broke down.

The judges said they could not approve that map because the deviation in population from the largest to smallest district was almost 10 percent. While that’s acceptable for maps drawn by legislators, courts are held to a more stringent standard.

The court map shuffles incumbents, forcing many to either run against another incumbent or seek another option. It also creates 25 open House seats.

Wichita lawyer and small business owner Mark Kahrs announced Friday that he will run as a Republican for one of those open seats, the new District 87 in east Wichita.

Kahrs said in a written statement that job creation and the economy are the biggest concerns of most Kansans.

He said his first job in the Legislature would be “to create a positive economic climate to promote job creation.”

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