EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Out of sight but not out of mind is the apt description for politics in America at this moment. The focus on terrorism has made partisanship unfashionable.
Candidates for mayor in cities across the country and for governor in New Jersey and Virginia, the two states holding elections next month, are debating as usual about taxes and transportation, crime and corruption, whether the public is listening or not.
On Capitol Hill, the old squabbles over economic policy and the role of government are beginning to resurface after a month of unusual unity following the September 11 terrorist attacks.
But the most consequential political struggles--the ones with long-lasting effects--are taking place largely unnoticed by most citizens. These are the battles over redistricting that will literally set the lines of electoral advantage for the next decade.
I was reminded of this reality the other day here when I saw Michigan state Sen. Dianne Byrum. Byrum was the Democratic nominee in a race for the House of Representatives which I had covered last year--a classic open-seat contest in which she ultimately lost to Republican Mike Rogers by a scant 160 votes.
The Rogers-Byrum race in the district formerly held by Democrat Deborah Stabenow, now a U.S. senator, was so competitive and so vital to both parties that it became the center of national attention and fund-raising. It is exactly the kind of race where one would expect a rematch. But when I asked Byrum if she were planning to run again next year, she said, "Absolutely not."
She will be term-limited out of her state Senate seat in 2002, she said, so she is considering three options. She may seek statewide office, step back and run for the Michigan house of representatives, or retire to private life until another political opportunity opens.
Why not run against Rogers again? Because, she said, a Republican redistricting plan has boosted the GOP voting strength by about 5 percent, making the once-competitive seat almost safe for the incumbent.
That same plan so radically redrew the home district of the No. 2 Democrat in the House, Minority Whip David Bonior, that Bonior has decided to end his House career and jump into a three-way primary for governor. And it also altered the territory of the senior House Democrat, John Dingell, sending him away from his familiar blue-collar, labor constituents in Down River Detroit and into the independent, academic high-tech atmosphere of Ann Arbor.
Thus, the political fortunes of many incumbents and potential challengers--and the future representation of millions of citizens--have been altered without a single vote being cast. Similar changes occur every 10 years, when the post-Census remapping of the House takes place. But this time around, few others than the politicians are paying attention. Worries about terrorism and anthrax put everything else in the shadow.
And yet, because the parties are so even in strength, the line-drawing taking place now may well determine whether the House of Representatives has a Republican or Democratic majority, not just for two years but for the next decade. Whichever party can gain an edge in the current redistricting will have an immense advantage.
Ironically, the final word in this vital political struggle is often held by unelected officials--federal judges. This week, for example, a three-judge federal court is scheduled to hear a dispute on the new congressional map for Texas.
Partisan stalemate in the Legislature left it up to District Judge Paul Davis, a Democrat who had decided not to seek re-election to the state bench, to draw the first, provisional version of the 32 districts Texas will have for the next decade--two more than its current delegation.
In early October, Davis had sketched a map that would have forced five Democratic incumbents either to run in Republican-leaning districts or to face each other. It would have virtually guaranteed Republicans, who now hold 13 of the 30 seats, a majority in the delegation.
But after a week of complaints from Hispanic groups, who claimed they were being denied proper representation, and pressure from Democrats, who said his map would doom their efforts to recapture the House, Judge Davis redrew his plan. The new version protects almost all incumbents and makes it likely the Democrats will emerge with either their current 17 seats or one more. Now the Republicans are crying foul.
Similar schemes are playing out in a couple dozen other states, usually for smaller but still vital stakes. Virtually unnoticed, politics go right on.
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