Addressing the redraw

If you account for representation by proxy, thousands of Montanans packed into a small meeting room at the University of Montana's Gallagher Business Building Monday night for the latest public hearing on remapping the state's legislative districts.

Body count was a different story. Roughly half of the 50-some people gathered before the five-member Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission were state legislators—many incumbents—concerned for the interests of their constituencies. And the partisanship that flared tempers after the last redistricting process in 2001 continued to dominate the debate.

"We need to take the politics out of drawing these boundaries," said Rep. Bob Lake, R-Hamilton. Rep. Scott Reichner, R-Bigfork, echoed the statement via video feed from Kalispell, stating Republicans are "just looking for a fair shot."

Montana's GOP has griped for 10 years over what they say is an imbalanced legislative map. Republicans have accused the previous Democrat-dominated districting commission of creating a "tilted" playing field in state politics and leaving voters across Montana disenfranchised. They've made it clear they won't let history repeat itself.

"The last redistricting process resulted in legislative districts that were just unacceptably biased," GOP Executive Director Bowen Greenwood told the Independent last week. "Our goal for this process is seats that are fair, period...We just want seats where either side has the representation they should have."

The pleas for a nonpartisan process were unanimous Monday, but the partisan divide in the room was unquestionable. Democrats applauded the previous commission's success in drawing effective and competitive districts, citing the near 50-50 split in the 2009 House of Representatives as evidence of equal representation. Their comments won occasional ribbing from the right.

The clearest voice of reason came early in the nearly three-hour hearing from former Democratic U.S. Rep. Pat Williams. As Republicans pointed fingers at the last commission and Democrats put in pitches for demographically diverse constituencies, Williams took what seemed to be the nonpartisan high road both parties advocated in the first place.

"Everybody in this room knows you're not going to please everyone," Williams said. "So don't try."

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