If there was ever any doubt that the state Senate is a club unto itself, well, a close look at the chamber’s likely reapportionment map will make things perfectly clear.
First, the circumstances: After weeks and weeks of vaguely-defined “discussion,” the committee burped out its map in a 26-minute-long hearing on Thursday. Seriously, before Thursday, the agenda for each of its previous 13 meetings merely said “Committee Discussion.” At least they were open hearings, I guess.
According to VTDigger, the hearing was not warned in advance as required by law, and the map wasn’t made public until after the hearing. A procedural fail to be sure, and a worrying one by a committee chaired by Sen. Jeanette White, who chairs the Senate Government Operations Committee. You know — the one that deals with open meetings and public records laws?
Aside from process flaws, the map itself is problematic in many ways. At virtually every turn, it bows the knee to incumbency — even when doing so is a setback for the Democratic Party. You know, the party that allegedly controls the process?
If this map is enacted, it will be harder for the Democrats to keep their Senate supermajority. It will help Republicans pick up some ground, but maybe not right away; and the new Chittenden County map is the best thing to happen to the Progressive Party since David Zuckerman became lieutenant governor. (It also gives the Republicans a real shot at a Chittenden seat for the first time since Diane Snelling left the chamber.)
The newly created, three-seat Chittenden Central district includes Winooski and part of Burlington. It seems custom-made to give the Progs a real shot at winning all three seats.
Looking at the committee lineup, this may have been a case of Prog/Dem Sen. Chris Pearson pulling one over on sleepy Democrats’ eyes. He was the only member from Chittenden County, which is weird in itself. There were four Dems on the committee: the barely-there Jeanette White, the almost-a-Republican Bobby Starr, everybody’s friend Alison Clarkson, and quiet second-termer Andrew Perchlik. The two Republicans were part-time Vermonter Brian Collamore and the politically savvy Randy Brock. In sheer political terms, Pearson and Brock could run rings around the other five.
And it sure looks like they did just that.
An overview: The new map takes a seat away from the Northeast Kingdom and adds a seventh seat to Chittenden County. Otherwise, most of the changes were minor and designed to smooth out population differences in ways that kept incumbents whole. The Kingdom will go from four seats to three, with single-seat districts named for each of the Kingdom’s counties: Caledonia, Essex and Orleans. Maybe the biggest change outside Chittenden and the Kingdom is the addition of Stowe to the Washington district, giving it enough population to keep all three incumbents in their seats. Otherwise, the changes involve towns that you might have never heard of if you’re not in the 251 Club.
Details, starting with Chittenden County. The new map protects all five incumbents expected to seek re-election: Pearson, Phil Baruth, Michael Sirotkin, Ginny Lyons, and Thomas Chittenden.
Sirotkin, Lyons, and Chittenden are in the South district (which also includes several eastern towns). So is Ram Hinsdale, but she’s running for Congress, so you’ve got three incumbents and three seats.
The committee carved Burlington in two. The western side, now in Chittenden South, includes a lot of solid Democratic turf: the New North End, waterfront and the southern neighborhoods. Central and eastern Burlington (including the UVM campus) are in a three-seat peanut-shaped district with Winooski that leans distinctly Progressive.
Baruth and Pearson live in Central. The third seat is open, and high-profile Progressive Rep. Taylor Small of Winooski has got to be licking her chops. I think Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky lives in Central too; ain’t no flies on her, either.
There is now a seventh seat in Chittenden, and it could be a political tossup. It’s in the single-seat Chittenden North district which includes Milton, Westford, Jericho, and part of Essex. (Per VTDigger, it’s more Essex Town in the North and more Essex Junction in Chittenden South.)
The town of Colchester remains in the Grand Isle district that’s the sole proprietorship of Sen. Dick Mazza. GI’s borders were not changed, and it’s one of the most underpopulated Senate districts in the map. But hey, Dick’s happy, everybody’s happy.
The Northeast Kingdom currently has four senators in three districts; Benning and Democrat Jane Kitchel both represent Caledonia. Benning’s town Lyndon is being redistricted into Essex, but he’s departing the Senate to run for lieutenant governor so that seat would presumably be open, and would presumably be Republican. The new smaller Caledonia (which includes St. Johnsbury) will have only one senator, Kitchel as long as she wants it. But she’s been the subject of retirement rumors. Once she leaves, the seat will almost certainly go Republican.
Currently, Essex and Orleans are a single, two-seat district represented by Starr and the very conservative Republican Russ Ingalls. Both appear to be in the new, separate Orleans district and would presumably fight over the seat. But Starr has been in poor health and his retirement has been rumored for a few years now. He’s on the reapportionment committee; if he allowed himself to be redrawn into a district with Ingalls, that may be a big fat hint that he’s stepping down.
If the Democratic majority had been interested in maximizing partisan advantage, it could have redrawn the Caledonia seat in a way that would make it competitive or even lean Democrat. They chose instead to give the Kingdom away.
The Dems also passed up opportunities to better their prospects by doing some surgery on Franklin and Rutland counties. Instead, they left those districts all but unchanged. Franklin’s delegation includes two Republicans; Rutland’s has two Republicans and one Dem, Cheryl Hooker. She’s the only Dem who’s won in the county in years. It’s unclear whether any other Dem could compete, although many Dems believe Rutland is turning purple, so there’s that. (They’ve also long believed that Franklin is going purple, and that hasn’t happened at all.)
The southern tier is pretty much unchanged. Bennington will keep its two senators, as will Windham. The Windsor district, with three solid Democratic seats, was hardly changed at all. Orange, currently the province of Dem Mark MacDonald, was rendered a bit more Republican, which becomes an issue when the 79-year-old MacDonald steps away.
It betrays a lack of foresight — or a prioritizing of incumbency above all else — to draw 10-year boundaries to protect incumbents who may be gone within a few years. But the Senate is a club whose members share common interests that transcend mere politics.
Oh, I didn’t mention Lamoille, the uncontested province of moderate Republican Richard Westman. Lamoille loses Stowe and gains Fletcher, tilting the district measurably to the right. When Westman retires, he’ll likely be replaced by a more conservative type.
The population goal of the new map is that each district should include as close to 21,436 constituents as possible — or multiples of 21,436 for multi-member districts. The biggest variants on the low side: Windsor with 59,993, or 6.8% below the ideal number; Grand Isle with 19,984, or 6.77% below the target; Rutland with 60,068, or 6.59% below the target; and Addison with 40,425, or 5.71% below target. In those districts, voters get a little more representation than their numbers warrant.
On the high side are the new Chittenden-South with 69,199 constituents, or 7.61% above target (the largest variant from ideal); the slimmed-down Caledonia with 22,630, or 5.58% above; and Washington at 67,285, or 4.63 above. Those voters get a little less representation than they ideally should.
Ugggggggh. Anybody still reading this thing? Well, I’ll try to summarize the potential impact on the makeup of the Senate as the next decade unfolds. The Democrats may lose three seats or maybe four. The Republicans will pick up at least one, more likely two and perhaps three. The Progressives will pick up one or two.
It’s not a big change, but right now the Democrats hold 21 seats. If they slip below 20, they’d need caucus unanimity plus Progressive or Republican support on supermajority votes. The committee could have drawn lines that would have tightened the Dems’ grip on the Senate without committing any real partisan mischief. They chose not to. We’ll see how that affects the next ten years of lawmaking.