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Redistricting map aligned to avoid incumbent battles, but at cost of a community's political power

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The Wyoming Legislature's Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee meets Jan. 12 at Casper College. The committee led the redistricting effort in Wyoming. 

As the Wyoming Legislature's redistricting bill now stands, Cheyenne's Latino community would be split unfavorably in order to prevent two sitting lawmakers from running against one another. 

South Cheyenne has a significant Latino population, as only about 1% to 2% of Laramie County Latinos live outside of the southern region of Wyoming's capital city. Before the redistricting bill moved through the House last week, South Cheyenne was only split between two districts, which South Cheyenne advocates prefer, as opposed to four.

The two-way split would force Reps. Clarence Styvar, R-Cheyenne, and Jim Blackburn, R-Cheyenne, to run against each other.

When the House amended the bill last week, lawmakers went back to a four-way split to prevent the two incumbents from facing off, as they have both expressed plans to run for reelection, committee co-chairman Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, told the Star-Tribune.

The map has many more rounds of revisions to go. When it met Tuesday, the Senate Corporations Committee offered indications that some lawmakers were open to amending South Cheyenne back down to two districts. Before that amendment occurred, however, the committee voted to sponsor the bill.

As the bill travels into the Senate for its first readings, South Cheyenne remains split in four House districts. A two-district map in South Cheyenne gives Latinos more voting power instead of being spread into larger, whiter districts. For the past 10 years, South Cheyenne was split into four districts.

“It could be better for South Cheyenne residents,” said Carla Gregorio, vice president of the Wyoming Independent Citizens Coalition.

"It still splits South Cheyenne into four districts [and] therefore splits the Hispanic and blue-collar workers vote,” she later added.

The current map, while it splits South Cheyenne into four, is considered better than what’s been in place for the past decade, because instead of four districts that are evenly split, there are two main districts and two smaller ones.

That alignment is seen as a compromise between what the South Cheyenne advocates want while preventing a Blackburn-Styvar race.

“[The map was] redrawn to get closer to what the independent citizens coalition wanted without undistricting incumbents,” Zwonitzer said.

Pete Illoway, chairman of the corporations committee when redistricting was performed a decade ago, got straight to the point Tuesday morning.

“How many legislators did you save when you did this?” he asked. “Because I think Laramie County is probably messed up, and I think probably some other counties also have saved some legislators, and we’re not supposed to save legislators. We did that 10 years ago and it was a mistake, and I would say that was part of my problem as the chairman.”

Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, pushed back against the accusations that the corporations committee did anything inappropriate to maintain seats.

“The truth is, we presented a redistricting plan without legislative seats in mind,” she said.

There’s robust evidence to her point: The committee-sponsored bill had many sitting lawmakers running against each other.

She also cited the fact that her Senate district is being torn up, which she did not object to.

Avoiding the displacement of sitting lawmakers is not one of the guiding principles that the committee drew up at the beginning of the process, but it plays a role.

“One of our criteria is -- it’s not the highest -- is to look at existing seats and not to affect them if you can help it,” Majority Floor Leader Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, said Tuesday.

It's not secret that lawmakers work around incumbents while redrawing Wyoming's legislative map.

The map has to be passed like a bill, meaning it needs majority support in both chambers, so avoiding the ire of sitting lawmakers is key to passing the bill, which the state is required to do.

“Because it’s being done by legislators, it has to be a political process. So you have to have a bill that can get 31 votes in the House and 16 votes in the Senate,” Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, previously told the Star-Tribune.

That said, racking up the necessary votes does not imply that Wyomingites will be poorly represented.

“​​It's a political process requiring a sufficient number of votes. Population changes can be reflected in multiple ways,” Zwontizer said.

One lawmaker did attempt to make the process less political by creating an independent redistricting commission that would take the responsibility away from sitting lawmakers.

The resolution, by Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson, failed in the Senate 9-21. It was cosponsored by the Speaker of the House Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, and Senate Vice President Larry Hicks, R-Baggs.

“It just has been difficult because, despite everyone’s best intentions and best efforts, this process gets personal,” Gierau previously told the Star-Tribune. “There isn’t any way around it. If they redraw the lines, and you have a whole bunch of folks you’ve never represented before, it’s difficult.”

Zwonitzer, who was on the corporations committee during the last redistricting, said it was not as political the last time around.

The redistricting bill will move on to its first of three readings in the Senate next. 

“We hope the Senate fixes it," Gregorio said. "I’ve been working towards two House representatives and one Senate seat in South Cheyenne."

Follow state politics reporter Victoria Eavis on Twitter @Victoria_Eavis


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