Rep. Jim Matheson expects the Republicans to come for him next year by further splintering Democratic votes when the state adds a fourth congressional district, and he said Utahns' only shield against gerrymandering is to start weighing in with lawmakers now.
That, and to elect a Democratic governor with a veto over the Republican-led Legislature.
"I expect a partisan gerrymander," Matheson, D-Utah, told The Salt Lake Tribune's editorial board Thursday. "That's why I think it's important to elect Peter Corroon [governor]. It's the one arrow we have in the quiver."
Matheson first ran and won his seat in 2000, when his district was contained within Salt Lake County. After the 2000 census the Legislature stripped him of constituents in western Salt Lake City and the county, and added a vast swath of rural and southern Utah many strongly Republican areas to the 2nd Congressional District. He won re-election in 2002 by less than one percentage point, and has progressively built his margin of victory in each subsequent election.
Utah House Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, suggests a similar rural-urban approach that would split Salt Lake County's 1 million people among all four new districts and tether each to its own rural strand. He calls this "pie" approach, slicing up the county, a balance among rural and urban interests, and he rejects the gerrymander label.
"The only congressman still serving from the last redistricting is Congressman Matheson. So who did we gerrymander out?" Clark asked. "I just don't buy that the urban-rural mix is picking on anyone, especially when the only man left standing is the one saying he's picked on."
Matheson also is the only Democrat in the state's delegation.
A legislative committee will tour the state next year to invite public comment, Clark said, and while he personally likes the idea of splitting Salt Lake County in four, the committee will consider a range of options.
Matheson predicted that the real maps will be drawn behind the scenes while the committee goes through the charade of public input, as he said happened in 2001.
Morgan Philpot, the Republican nominee for Matheson's job, is a former legislator who voted for the 2001 redistricting. He said he was a new lawmaker at that point and not involved in crafting the map, but he believed legislators were fair to Matheson.
"The beneficiary was the congressman who's held the seat for the last 10 years," Philpot said.
Noting Matheson's primary challenge this year by Holladay Democrat Claudia Wright, Philpot questioned whether including more Salt Lake County voters in the district would have helped the incumbent.
"If you look at Matheson's challenge right now, it's from Salt Lake County," Philpot said. "So if anything, Republicans have saved his bacon."
A group called Utah Fair Boundaries failed to gather enough signatures to place a redistricting initiative on the fall ballot. But board member Glenn Wright said members will attempt to educate the public and keep voters focused on a fair outcome next year.
If members can raise $5,000, he said, they will produce a computer-generated map showing how district lines would have looked for the past decade if legislators had used their criteria. They should be as compact as possible while including whole cities and counties where possible, he said, and without regard to incumbents' addresses or party registrations in any area.
Wright said he hopes to have that map out before the election, then raise another $5,000 to generate one projecting possible 2011 district boundaries.
The maps will also show legislative district boundaries, he said, such as for his home in Summit County, which had a slight Democratic majority in 2001 and enough people for its own district, but was split into two state House districts. Similar splits affected Democratic outposts in Grand and Carbon counties.
"What's going to happen [next year] depends on how mad the public is about this particular issue," Wright said.
Every 10 years political boundaries are redrawn to account for population shifts reflected in the U.S. census. Utah's Legislature, heavily dominated by Republicans, is responsible for approving the new maps. The next redistricting will take place in 2011.