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Rural Utahns want stronger voice in Congress

Published June 11, 2011 11:35 pm

Politics • Redistricting panel weighing districts cut into pie-slices versus "doughnut" plan.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Cedar City • Ron Solomon stood before the legislative committee that is redrawing Utah's political boundaries and joined a parade of other rural Utahns this weekend to oppose Republican proposals to require all four U.S. House seats to have a rural-urban population mix.

"I, and others I have spoken with, really despise the dividing up of the Salt Lake City area and then spreading out [boundaries] to the rest of the state," he said. "That just completely disenfranchises us" in rural areas that have fewer votes.

Solomon told of watching election results in which rural areas were voting one way, "and then the Salt Lake results came in and wiped them all out." He wants at least one all-rural congressional district to represent rural needs well.

That was a common theme in field hearings this weekend that the Legislature's Redistricting Committee held in St. George, Cedar City, Richfield and Ephraim. Although the meetings were lightly attended, averaging about 30 participants, those who did speak — including several GOP officials — generally opposed the GOP proposals .

State Republican leaders have floated proposals that would slice Salt Lake County into four pieces and join each with rural areas to form U.S. House districts in what is called the "pizza slice" plan. Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, among others, says that would ensure all four members of Congress worry about public-lands issues that are important to the state's future.

But Democrats see that plan as an attempt to dilute votes in their one stronghold in Salt Lake County, and to hurt the re-election chances of Rep. Jim Matheson, a Democrat.

Democrats are pushing what is called the "doughnut hole" plan. It would form three urban districts along the four main Wasatch Front counties, surrounded by a large all-rural district covering the rest of the state.

Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, the House chairman of the committee, said all rural areas combined in the state have only enough population for one all-rural district under one-person, one-vote requirements. "If you 'doughnut hole' Salt Lake, Utah, Davis and Weber counties, then you can have a rural seat. Otherwise, you can't do that," he said.

Most, but not all, rural residents testifying in field hearings this week said they want that one all-rural district, even if it is vast.

Solomon, for example, said, "I feel we have more in common here in Cedar City with the folks in Brigham City and Logan than with the folks in the avenues in Salt Lake."

Eureka City Councilman Thomas Nedreberg told the committee, "If Salt Lake County is divided into four parts, we could have four congressmen who are all from Salt Lake County."

He added, "With that doughnut hole, we could have a congressman who comes from Logan or St. George or Carbon County or San Juan County, and they would represent those areas at our national level. I think those are important voices to be heard."

State Rep. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, told the committee, "We do have a strong desire to have a seat, if possible, to represent rural southern Utah that could specialize in our interests."

In St. George, Washington County Democratic Chairwoman Dorothy Engelman was handing out doughnuts before the field hearing there — urging the committee to support the doughnut hole plan "and not a [pizza] 'pie' in the face."

She said, "We now live in a congressional district now that joins part of Salt Lake City and St. George. Their needs are not the same, and it was wrong to put them together. They should not do it again."

Kim Pickett, vice chairman of the Sanpete County Republican Party, told the committee he cannot remember the last time Utah had a member of Congress who was from a rural town. He said rural areas "just don't have a chance to ever compete with large-population areas."

Linda Tirado, representing the Iron County Democratic Party, said, "We need to keep our [urban] population centers together and separate from our rural concerns. ... I don't think you will hear many people say that a rural seat is a bad idea out here."

But a couple of rural residents did testify in favor of the pizza-slice plan.

Sevier County Commission Chairman Gordon Topham favored it, he said, because it would be good for all of Utah's members of Congress "to understand rural and urban issues." He added, "I would hope that we don't do a doughnut hole and take away three of those [congressional] voices on rural issues."

Also, Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield, told the committee, "It scares us to think of congressmen who do not have to answer to areas that have vast open lands. Public lands are extremely important to this state and its future."

State Rep. David Clark, R-Santa Clara, sometimes mentioned as a congressional candidate, said, "I think there is value in trying to have a diversity of mixture in each one of those congressional districts. I think that has served us well in years past."

Waddoups — a proponent of the "pizza slice" plan — said it's too early to see what rural opposition may do to it. "What we have learned is that most of the rural people who testified so far have opposed it," he said. "I suppose we also know what Salt Lake City thinks about it," he said smiling, knowing of Democratic opposition there.

ldavidson@sltrib.com

Utah Redistricting Committee

The committee's next meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Salt Lake City Public Library, 210 E. 400 South. For more information on redistricting, go online. > RedistrictUtah.com