Kansas redistricting hearing debates merits, politics of boundaries

Buffalo 30.

For the people.

Or something mysterious called, “Essex A.”

They’re the pet names for maps a panel of federal judges was asked Tuesday to choose from in deciding how Kansas’ state Senate election districts should be drawn after the Legislature failed to act this year.

Each version does different things and they all mean different things to different people, depending on politics.

But they will help decide a number of issues that will matter to Kansas voters:

•  Perhaps giving Johnson County an eighth Senate seat and a louder voice in the Kansas Legislature.

•  Maybe empowering moderate Republicans to keep control of the state Senate, further blocking Gov. Sam Brownback’s conservative agenda.

•  Or possibly giving conservatives a foothold for challenging moderate Republican senators in this August’s primary.

The three-judge panel heard more than nine hours of testimony in a packed courtroom. It included pleas from more than a dozen lawyers and a who’s who of the Kansas Legislature ranging from House Speaker Mike O’Neal to Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka.

Public interest in the case prompted court officials to video record the session so it can be posted on a website later as part of the federal court’s “Cameras in the Courtroom” pilot project.

The judges are being to asked to draw election districts for Congress, the state House and the state Board of Education because the Legislature didn’t approve those either.

But it’s the Senate districts that are proving to be the battleground as moderate and conservative Republicans wage battle for control of the chamber for the next decade.

It’s a debate that’s reached into the governor’s office. In the hearing Tuesday, discussion turned to a Senate redistricting map that was not pondered in the Legislature. Rather, a legislator said, it came from a Brownback aide.

That map, now evidence in the case, is named “Essex A” after the last name of the Olathe Republican precinct committeewoman who brought the redistricting lawsuit. A statewide map of the districts posted on the Web does not show enough detail to discern its local impact.

The role of the governor’s aide was revealed in testimony, but it wasn’t completely clear if the map was drawn up by the staffer or how it made its way into the lawsuit. The lawyer for the plaintiff wouldn’t comment on Tuesday.

Much of Tuesday’s hearing also focused on another plan, this one approved by the Senate. That plan carved three would-be conservative challengers out of districts represented by moderate Republicans, setting off the feud that ultimately led to the Legislature’s inability to approve any redistricting plan this year.

That Senate plan — called Buffalo 30 — would have moved a senate district from south-central Kansas to Johnson County. As a result, two conservative Republican incumbents from the Wichita area would have been put in the same Senate district.

One expert who worked on three previous Kansas redistricting initiatives viewed that Buffalo 30 Senate-approved plan favorably.

Mary Galligan, once an analyst for the non-partisan Kansas Legislative Research Department, said the Senate plan had merit because the population was relatively equal from district to district.

She also liked the way the Senate plan treated areas of the state that had grown in population, such as Johnson County, compared to other areas of the state that had not grown as fast.

Others, including Republican Sen. Jeff King of Independence, Kan., thought the Senate-approved plan gerrymandered Senate election boundaries. He told the judges how the proposed borders would boost the number of Democratic voters in some Republican districts.

King helped develop another map, known affectionately in some quarters as “For the People.” That plan, approved by the House, doesn’t give Johnson County an entirely new Senate district. But it put parts of downtown Olathe, including the county courthouse, into a district that that includes Leavenworth and Douglas counties.

King countered charges that his proposal did not gerrymander — or distort boundaries for political advantage — districts.

“We call it,” he said, “a fair fight map.”