Matt Krauss: Vermont legislative redistricting a brewing storm?

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Matt Krauss, of Stowe. He is a retired state employee and former state legislator.

Recently published census figures herald the coming Vermont legislative redistricting saga. The census numbers are cold and dry, but behind the numbers are real people and real communities such as my home town, Stowe, which now is too large for a single state representative and too small for two state representatives. Stowe, meet legislative redistricting.

Vermonters legitimately decry other states’ gerrymandering of congressional and legislative seats. States dominated by a single party have come to use their majority to grossly manipulate legislative redistricting. Vermont is clearly a blue state, but Vermonters expect our legislators to be above those partisan tactics. Left unsaid by polite folks, but uppermost in the minds of others is the alluring prospect of cheap gains while trampling the Vermont Way. Here’s hoping the majority legislative party plays well with the other, smaller parties in the redistricting sandbox.

What gives me the right to comment on this subject? I have seen this process up close and personal. In 1990-1992 redistricting carved up my House district and my participation in the Vermont House of Representatives ended. The lessons learned could be of value to the communities and legislators who will soon will go thru what Barre City experienced in 1990-1992.

In 1990, the House Speaker chose the House committee chair and picked the committee members responsible for crafting the new redistricting plan. Some said this was done to ensure as favorably an outcome for their party as could be crafted. Vermont media reported at the time, “Democrats flex muscles, win on redistricting” (Associated Press 4/26/92). A Burlington Free Press article from Jan. 24, 1992, outlined the winning party’s spoils. The reporter described three new districts each matching two Republicans against each other and two additional new districts pitting less senior Republicans against long serving Democrats. The House speaker’s comment was quite definitive: “It’s politics, pure and simple.” Could this be why they call redistricting the blood sport of politics?

Legislators about to experience their own struggle with loss should focus first on their communities and their constituents — educate, explain options, and don’t sugarcoat reality. Listen to their angst and be there for them. They didn’t do anything wrong, but are facing a witches’ brew of bewildering map boundaries, population changes, and no viable options. Most important of all, explain what happened to the folks who sent you to Montpelier. I walked my district for the final time distributing a letter saying, “thanks very much, I’m sorry, I can’t continue to be your state representative.” Call it closure.

Next, it’s important to inform communities the Vermont Judiciary very seldom entertains redistricting court challenges. In 1990-1992 there were five House appeals and one Senate appeal. Ultimately, all failed.

Vermont citizens should support, encourage, and empathize with those state representatives and senators who will, through no fault of their own, lose their seats. It hurts Vermont democracy when hardworking, dedicated, service minded Vermonters are punished solely because they have an I, R, or P next to their name. For those adversely affected legislators the options are limited:  retirement, a more challenging race for state representative, or running for the Vermont Senate, which was my choice.

Vermont media can and should use their bully pulpit for timely editorial reminders — “timely” being defined as far in advance of finalized legislative plans — to the majority party to avoid blatant political ploys and decidedly unfair outcomes. They should encourage legislative leaders not to mimic other states examples of one-sided plans. (If the Vermont media won’t voice their objections to the corruption of the democratic process, might it be assumed they support it?)

There’s a narrow gap between what’s required legally and what’s arguably appropriate. Vermonters and their communities know the difference between a fair deal and a raw deal. They don’t expect perfection, but won’t accept or look kindly on heavy handed political maneuvers. After the election of 1992, Barre City ended up with two Republican representatives and one Democrat state representative — and a newly minted Republican state senator, Matt Krauss. This outcome was the result of a fortuitous combination of hard work and an angry community recognizing it had been treated unfairly.

Call it fate, karma or coincidence, the speaker and the former committee chair involved in crafting the redistricting bill received a different outcome. Two years later both had their political careers permanently ended by the voters. Perhaps the majority party might remember this outcome as they craft their bills.

Image courtesy of Public domain