Dan Haar: Republican vision for CT’s Congress map makes sense – CT Insider

The proposed congressional map of Connecticut by CT Republicans would eliminate the so-called lobster claw of the 1st District. Pictured here is the map of the current districts, established in 2011 based on a 2001 model.
The proposed congressional map of Connecticut by CT Republicans would eliminate the so-called lobster claw of the 1st District. Pictured here is the proposal, which moves New Britain and the Farmington Valley into the 1st District and Bristol and six northern towns into the 5th.
Go ask a seventh grader to carve Connecticut into five regions, each with exactly the same population. Tell her the idea is to keep cities and towns together in regions where people tend to shop, attend cultural and sports events and work in the same parts of the state.
She would come back with a map showing Fairfield County along the Stamford-Norwalk-Bridgeport corridor; greater New Haven; and greater Hartford. All of that follows the main highways, Interstate 91, Interstate 95 and the Merritt/Wilbur Cross parkways.
That’s what the U.S. Census and other federal agencies use to determine “standard metropolitan statistical areas.”
For the other two regions, she would lump together the large number of towns in the northwestern part of the state, crisscrossed by the Route 8 corridor though Torrington up to Winsted and by Interstate 84 from Danbury through Waterbury and Southington. Then she’d be left with the vast eastern half of the state as her fifth region.
That natural order is how Connecticut Republicans propose to draw the lines for congressional districts, which makes a lot of sense.
Ben Proto, the GOP state chairman, showed me the party’s suggested map and it has the added advantage of not breaking up Waterbury and Torrington into different districts.
But it’s not going to happen. With one day left before the Dec. 21 deadline to redraw the map, the bipartisan Redistricting Commission appears to be deadlocked.
Democrats insist on keeping the “lobster claw” shape of the 1st District, which has New Britain and the Farmington Valley in the 5th and Winsted, Bristol and most of Torrington in the 1st.
The reason: It’s a combination of history and good, old-fashioned political gerrymandering of the sort we love to hate when we see Republicans doing it in places like Texas and North Carolina.
The history part of it stems from 2001, when Connecticut lost a seat in Congress. Then-Rep. Nancy Johnson, a New Britain Republican, wanted to keep her job in the old 6th District, so the two parties agreed to include New Britain and Meriden in the new 5th, which set in motion the lobster claw shape of the 1st. Republicans kept Johnson in office; Dems gained the long-term upper-hand.
The political part of it is this: The current configuration gives Rep. Jahana Hayes, the Democrat elected to the 5th District in 2018, an advantage over any Republican, compared with doing away with the claw.
How big a benefit? It’s significant. Figures Proto provided, based on the GOP suggested map, show the current 5th District has a “partisan voter index” of 52 percent Democrat compared with 45.5 percent Republican. That’s based on how people actually voted in recent elections, not voter registration.
The new map, as the GOP proposed it, gives the GOP an edge, just under 50 percent Republican to just under 48 percent Democrat. And the population of racial minority or Hispanic residents in the 5th would fall from 32.5 percent to 27 percent.
The district lines need to change somewhat, to meet the new Census numbers and rebalance the state. Democrats want to keep things more or less where they are, with just enough tweaks to balance the numbers.
A big change in the 5th District would be an enormous ask for Democrats at precisely the worst time. As it stands now, Hayes is the only one of the five incumbents, all Democrats, who could lose her seat in November, in a likely race against former state Sen. George Logan, a Republican. The rest are safe seats for the Dems.
And making matters dire, Republicans are more than likely to take control of the U.S. House, which would elevate Rep. Kevin McCarthy, now the Republican leader, as House Speaker. This is the same Kevin McCarthy who is so beholden to former President Donald Trump that he led the charge in the shameful Jan. 6 attack on the Electoral College — actually voting to reject legitimate election results hours after a Trump mob stormed the Capitol.
Democrats could be excused for doing everything in their power to avoid giving McCarthy another member. McCarthy and his gang of fake “patriots” represent a threat to free elections. To be clear, Logan is not in that gang and is not especially tied to Trump or McCarthy but he’d be in their caucus as a conservative vote.
Either way, the Dems need to do the right thing, right now, when it comes to redistricting. The lobster claw is just plain wrong and anyway, voting patterns will evolve over the next decade and beyond. If a Democratic incumbent can’t beat a challenger in blue Connecticut in a closely divided district, she shouldn’t be in Congress.
What we’re talking about is a blockbuster trade: New Britain, Farmington, Plainville, Avon, Simsbury and Canton from the 5th to the 1st. Bristol and the bulk of Torrington, along with five low-population towns up that way (including the borough or Winsted) would move from the 1st to the 5th.
The 3rd District, greater New Haven, would gain most of Meriden, which is now in the 5th. Oxford, now in the 4th, would move to the 5th. The 1st would become less Democratic-leaning, but it’s already so far that way that a Dem would have to be indicted for murder to lose.
“The current map, the claw, the leg, whatever you want to call it, is designed to achieve a political outcome,” Proto said. “The Democrats want everything as is usually the case, even if it means that the people in thse discticts are not properly served by communities of interest.”
I spoke briefly with Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven, the Senate president pro-tempore and a member of the commission. He confirmed that the political implications make it unlikely the Dems will give in.
Democrats say it’s not clear-cut. “Just because it’s clean does not mean it’s not a gerrymander,” said one Dem operative, who added that Danbury, Waterbury, Meriden and New Britain give the 5th a large Hispanic population — which amounts to a community of interest.
Rep. Vin. Candelora, R-North Branford, the GOP House leader, holds out hope for a compromise. The map provided by Proto is not the same as the version he and other Republicans gave Dems a few days ago.
“If we stand our ground on moving New Britain into the 1st then obviously that’s not going to be acceptable to them,” Candelora said “The question is, what change is acceptable?”
Obviously there’s no perfct solution when it comes to comminities of common interest. For example, Cheshire belongs in the 3rd with Wallingford and Meriden but it stays in the 5th under the current GOP plan and Madison remains split from Guilford.
If the commission remains deadlocked and the map-making reverts to the state Supreme Court, the changes will be minor — as the court itself said in an opinion 10 years ago.
Painful as it may be, Democrats, who are fighting against gerrymandering with a proposed law in Congress and with federal lawsuits, must set an example in Connecticut by doing the right thing. Then they can fight like hell to keep the seats they hold.
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Dan Haar is Columnist and Associate Editor at Hearst Connecticut Media, writing about the intersection of business, public policy and politics and how the issues affect the people of Connecticut.