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Published: Saturday, 9/17/2011 - Updated: 2 years ago

Dems won long-ago bid to alter Ohio congressional map

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF
New Ohio Congressional District map. New Ohio Congressional District map.
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COLUMBUS -- There was a Democrat in the White House, and Republicans controlled the Ohio governor's office and the General Assembly. Minority Democrats turned to voters to scrap a GOP-drawn map that changed the boundaries of Ohio congressional districts.

It wasn't 2011, but 1915. And 96 years later, Democrats hope history could repeat itself as they threaten to take a new, proposed congressional map directly to the people in hopes they'll reject proposed districts that some have described as the Lake Erie "green swamp thing" and the Columbus-area "Pac Man."

Voters, 53 percent to 47 percent, rejected the 1915 map. The next year, an effort to invalidate that vote worked its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the right to a state referendum of a congressional redistricting law.

If opponents of the proposed 2011 map succeed in collecting at least 231,147 valid signatures of registered voters within 90 days of Gov. John Kasich's signature, the bill would be shelved at least until the results of the November, 2012, election are known. But while Ohioans may have the right to take such a map to voters, a federal court likely would take the issue out of their hands before then, according to Lee Strang, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Toledo.

"That [Supreme Court] case existed prior to current federal law," he said. "The case was probably right at the time. But [in 2011], first a federal court would issue its own map. Then, if we're up against a deadline, it would, as a last resort, order statewide, at-large congressional elections."

It is unclear, but the latter may be what occurred in 1916, said House Republican spokesman Mike Dittoe after conferring with legal staff.

The Legislative Services Commission has been researching the Sprague Act case because the possibility of a Democratic referendum was raised.

The Ohio House voted 56-36 Thursday to send the Senate a map that redraws the boundaries of congressional districts, a process required to adjust population every 10 years after each U.S. Census. The full Senate is expected to take it up as early as Wednesday.

Democrats see litigation and a possible voter referendum as ways of forcing the GOP to share the pencil and eraser. After offering no map of its own to date, the party plans to submit one before the Senate vote.

"That would compel [House Speaker William Batchelder] to sit down, compromise, and mediate with the minority on maps that could find bipartisan support," party Chairman Chris Redfern said. "The petitioners can withdraw the petition for a referendum at any time up to a set window."

State Rep. Matt Huffman (R., Lima), the bill's sponsor, argued such a maneuver would take the issue out of Ohio's hands and put it in those of federal judges.

"Unelected judges shouldn't be drawing congressional districts," Mr. Huffman said. "If this were stretched out long enough, if we didn't draw this, that's who would be picking these congressional districts. That's who would be picking who your representative is."

Unlike 1915 when Ohio was gaining members in the U.S. House of Representatives, Ohio will lose two of its 18 seats when the next Congress is sworn in because of its sluggish population growth. Of the districts created in the GOP-drawn plan, four are considered to be solidly Democratic while 12 are either strongly Republican or leaning that way.

The map divides Toledo three ways among districts now held by U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), Bob Latta (R., Bowling Green), and Jim Jordan (R., Urbana).

Ms. Kaptur's new 9th District would snake along Lake Erie from Toledo to Cleveland, potentially putting her in a Democratic primary election battle against U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Cleveland).

The map retains a northeastern Ohio district that has a majority of minority voters but does it by stretching the previously Cleveland-based district south to include minority communities in Akron.

It packs Democrats into a new Columbus-based district, thereby solidifying Republican strength in suburban districts.

As it seeks to reduce Ohio's representation from 18 congressmen to 16 and to compensate for the new Columbus-based Democratic district in which no incumbent resides, the map contains three districts containing two sitting congressmen.

There's the potential Kaptur-Kucinich match. Two Republicans -- U.S. Reps. Steve Austria (R., Beavercreek) and Mike Turner (R., Dayton) -- would face each other in a single west-central Ohio district.

And in a northeast Ohio district, U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, a suburban Akron Democrat, would face U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, a Wadsworth Republican, in a district that favors the GOP.

Contract Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.



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