Column #044. First published in the St. Cloud Times Mar. 22, 2011
“Patrick, it’s Andy.”
I will miss these words that I heard often when I picked up the phone.
Andy Virden’s death earlier this month has left me, and all of us, bereft of the hero I had the honor of saluting in my June 2009 column, “Vision goes deeper than sight.”
Whenever something happening in the public sphere was going to hurt people, Andy would alert me to it.
He was an advocate, of course, for the disabled, and especially for the blind, but his compassion — and, when it was called for, his anger — spread across the whole range of human concerns.
Had I had the chance, I’d have asked Andy’s opinion about my topic today. Starting with the first DFL caucus he attended, in 1952 (and he didn’t miss a one up through 2010), Andy witnessed many redistrictings.
The Legislature has the once-a-decade assignment of redrawing the lines before the 2012 elections. The budget is the big issue this session, of course, but I rank redistricting a very close second, with profound implications, both large and small, for our common life until 2022.
And I am confident Andy would have agreed with me because he was always for good and fair government.
Earlier this month the League of Women Voters St. Cloud Area sponsored a showing of the documentary film, “Gerrymandering.” With example after example it demonstrates, in the words of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, “politicians choosing their voters instead of voters choosing their politicians.”
Because population density has shifted since 2000, Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District — the one we’re in — now has too many people in it, so for equalization 96,487 6th District citizens (the figure from the state demographer) will get moved to others, and we on the western end could well get shifted to the 7th or the 8th.
And that’s only half the redistricting story. State Senate and House district lines also will be redrawn, determining who can run for what where. With everybody seeking partisan advantage (no party’s record on this is admirable), for the past 40 years the Legislature and governor have been unable to agree, and the whole matter has gone to the courts. There seems no reason to expect anything different this time.
Unless. It’s highly unlikely, but could happen if enough of us make noise.
The signal has been given by some notable voices from across the political spectrum: former Vice President Walter Mondale, former Govs. Arne Carlson and Al Quie, former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz, former House Speaker Steve Sviggum, and former U.S. Rep. Tim Penny.
They propose a redistricting commission composed of five retired judges, one each appointed by the majority and minority leaders of the Senate and House, and the fifth chosen by the other four judges. The plan would have to be submitted to the Legislature, so elected officials would have final say, but some of the built-in conflict of interest would be avoided.
Even George W. Bush agrees with Mondale. In his recent book, “Decision Points,” the former president says “our government would be more productive — and our politics more civilized — if congressional districts were drawn by panels of nonpartisan elders instead of partisan state legislatures.”
Minnesota came close to this more productive, more civilized way in 1980, when the establishment of a Reapportionment Commission was submitted to voters as a constitutional amendment.
It was approved by 58 percent of those who voted on the question, but fell about 3,000 short of the required majority of all voters in the election.
“Gerrymandering” showed California effectively accomplishing in 2008 what Minnesota almost did 31 years ago. I’m not accustomed to thinking of California as ahead of Minnesota when it comes to fairness and efficiency, but now we need to play catch-up.
This means urging our state senators and representatives to adopt this so-called Mondale/Carlson proposal. Andy won’t be at next year’s caucus, but drawing lines in a more civilized manner would be a good way to honor him.