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New Colorado voting map spurs debate from ski towns to Latina coffee group

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(C) Reuters. The skyline of Denver, where the Colorado Independent Congressional Redistricting Commission has proposed new voting districts in the state, Denver, Colorado, U.S., June 24, 2021. Picture taken June 24, 2021. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

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By Julia Harte

DENVER (Reuters) – Days after an independent commission in Colorado released a map of proposed new congressional districts, a group of about 30 Latina power brokers considered its implications at a garden gathering in Denver’s historic Park Hill neighborhood.

The commission had placed the state’s new 8th Congressional District in Denver’s northern suburbs, a decision aimed at reflecting Colorado’s growing Hispanic community. But the Latina professionals chatting over coffee and cake at a “cafecito” worried the plan would not represent their community adequately.

The women vowed to turn out in force for 32 public hearings the commission will hold in July and August in what it has dubbed a redistricting “roadshow.”

“We need to make sure Latinos have a voice in as many districts as possible,” said Polly Baca, who in 1978 became the first Hispanic woman elected to Colorado’s state senate.

As the first state to reveal an initial map of its new districts ahead of next year’s high-stakes midterm congressional elections, Colorado is girding for one of the country’s most vigorous debates over redistricting.

In the once-a-decade process, new U.S. census data helps decide how states redraw the boundaries of voting districts that elect legislators to the House of Representatives. The mapping decisions can play a role in determining control of Congress by consolidating or dispersing voters of similar political views.

In most states, legislatures draw new districts, leaving little room for public input. But in 2018, Colorado became one of 10 states that rely on independent redistricting commissions to reduce partisanship, opening new channels for public participation.

That change, coupled with increased awareness of how the plotting of electoral lines can shift political advantage, has brought wider scrutiny to the preliminary map released in Colorado on June 23.

Voters, advocacy groups and aspiring congressional candidates are weighing in on the district lines, which will change once the state gets final census data later this year and as a result of input at the public hearings.

Getting most attention are competitive districts that will affect Republicans’ chances in 2022 of seizing control of the House from Democrats, who hold a slim 10-seat majority.

‘A GREAT START’

Colorado’s Hispanic population grew to 24% of the total in 2019, up from 21% in 2010, according to state data. Yet Colorado has no Hispanic U.S. lawmakers, prompting community leaders to seek greater representation through redistricting.

Under the commission’s plan, the new 8th District, which the state received because of overall population growth since 2010, would pull in many of the liberal cities north of Denver.

Hispanics would constitute 29.9% of the proposed district – “a great start,” said Mike Ferrufino, president of the Colorado Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

But he said the lines should be tweaked to include more cities that reflect the area’s full Hispanic community, pointing out that heavily Hispanic Commerce City was only partly included in the district.

In addition to the number of Hispanic voters, Ferrufino and other Hispanic leaders said the overall diversity and attitudes of voters in any district also affected whether Hispanic candidates could competitively run for Congress.

Rosemary Rodriguez, a co-founder of the 30-year-old cafecito gathering, said the group’s newsletter reached more than 800 women, and she planned to use that platform to galvanize Latino participation in the redistricting process.

Dividing Denver’s progressive electorate evenly across two districts would achieve more diverse representation than keeping it mostly in one district, as the commission’s preliminary map would, Rodriguez said at last week’s cafecito.

“Denver can bear the split. Its identity is solid, and if it helps more people of color to run, that’s a great reason to do it,” said Rodriguez, who worked to engage hard-to-reach communities during the 2020 census.

Cecelia Espenoza, a captain in Colorado’s Democratic Party, said she had been thinking of running for Congress if Denver was divided across two districts. But she was reconsidering after the preliminary map left Denver almost entirely in its single district, which has been represented by Democrat Diana DeGette since 1997.

The proposal for the state’s new district would push its current 7th District into more conservative counties southwest of Denver, making it potentially more competitive for Republicans.

In Marston, one of the Denver neighborhoods that is represented by DeGette but could end up with a more conservative lawmaker, Monica Ray, 34, a stay-at-home mother, was alarmed at the prospect.

“We’re registered Democrats; we’ve been really happy with our representative,” she said.

Marston teacher Stewart Ratliff, 33, said he would prefer to vote in the more politically diverse district, however, as a registered unaffiliated voter who has “libertarian values with a conservative swing.”

‘UTTERLY UNFAIR’

The proposed changes also are generating buzz hundreds of miles away from Denver, on Colorado’s Western Slope.

The commission’s map would solidify the Republican base in the district represented by Lauren Boebert, a first-term Republican congresswoman closely aligned with former President Donald Trump.

Despite adding several liberal towns including Vail, the hometown of Boebert’s top Democratic challenger so far, the map adds larger conservative areas to Boebert’s district, such as Canon City, boosting her Republican electorate overall.

“I’m gonna win!” said Boebert, when asked for her reaction to the new map on Wednesday as she attended a Trump speech near an unfinished section of U.S.-Mexican border wall in Texas.

Sara Blackhurst, president of Action 22, a regional advocacy organization representing Colorado’s southern counties, praised the commission’s decision not to let urban areas dilute Colorado’s two main rural districts: the Western Slope region and the state’s eastern plains.

But some residents in the eclectic mountain town of Nederland, where a Pride flag hangs from the town hall, were distressed at the thought of being moved from a deeply Democratic district to Boebert’s.

Rick Merrill, 69, a retired professional dancer who said he usually votes Democratic, vowed to do whatever he could to avoid that scenario.

“It’s utterly unfair to a community like Nederland because our vote would be totally negated,” he said.