By Jonathan Selden
Democratic Utah Congressman Jim Matheson and Hollywood everyman Tom Hanks have at least one thing in common.
They both play castaways on a lonely island surrounded by a vast ocean of opposition.
Matheson”s 2nd Congressional District is an Acropolis-like Democratic defense position in the middle of Republican dominated Utah.
Now, with a Constitutional mandate to redraw district lines this fall, state legislative Republicans are idling with earth moving equipment ready to hew the mound into a conservative fort.
“Whatever we can do to strengthen the Republican position is in our interest,” said Utah Republican Party Executive Director Scott Simpson.
Matheson is rightly worried.
“Jim”s expectation is that (Utah House) Speaker (Marty) Stephens and (Senate) President (Al) Mansell will be fair in the process. We think that people deserve and respect that the redistricting process will be done legally and fairly,” said Matheson spokeswoman Alyson Heyrend. “Let people choose their representatives rather than the representatives choosing their voters.”
Utah is divided into three congressional districts. Districts 1 and 2 are massive — dividing the state into two, east and west halves. Matheson”s 3rd District is tiny in comparison, encompassing just over half of Salt Lake County.
By law, the three must be equal in population to each other. With new census data that shows the rest of Utah has grown faster than Salt Lake County, legislators must move about 40,000 people into Matheson”s district to keep them all balanced, said Rep. Gerry Adair, R-Roy, who is heading the legislature”s redistricting committee.
It”s a complicated strategy game that requires super-geek statistics and intense political intuition.
To that end, Republicans have purchased an ultra fast computer to crunch through gigabytes of voting and polling data, pinpointing where supporters live. They feel up to the task, but are undecided on strategy.
“My political staff and I are intimately familiar with the political data in the state,” Simpson said. “You try to pile all the Democrats into one seat or you weaken the Democratic position in the 2nd District by bringing over some more Republican areas from the 1st and 3rd Districts. It”s basically two schools of thought. I”m not certain at this point.”
Meanwhile, state Democrats are organizing their own war room.
“We will definitely be doing our own planning,” said Utah Democratic Party Executive Director Todd Taylor. “We have analyzed the numbers enough to know that there is no reason that we would have to be hurt.”
That”s exactly what West Salt Lake Democrats said happened the last time legislators tweaked 2nd district lines in 1991.
That move placed heavily Democratic areas of West Salt Lake and Rose Park, where voters consistently elect Democrats to the state legislature, into the 3rd District with staunchly conservative Happy Valley.
“They made a change here a few years ago because we”re a mostly Democratic area, and they wanted to get a Republican in the 2nd Congressional District,” said William Cooley, Rose Park Community Council Chair.
Even though Democrat Bill Orton represented the 3rd District for three terms during the 1990”s, West Salt Lake Democrats aren”t enthused with their current congressman, Republican Rep. Chris Cannon.
“As far as him representing the west side of Salt Lake County: he”s in his third term and he still hasn”t opened an office,” said Rose Park Democrat Donald Dunn, who ran unsuccessfully for Cannon”s House seat last year.
No one knows for sure what the final outcome will be when the legislature votes on the final boundary proposal during a special session this fall.
“I have not an idea,” Adair said.
Rose Park resident Cooley agreed.
“I don”t know where they”ll put us this time,” he said.