Independence needed for boundaries

Oct 25 2011 - 3:12pm

You have heard a lot in the news for the last few months about the redistricting process in Utah, especially with all the talk about secret Republican closed door meetings and "gerrymandering." But many of you are probably confused. Many of my friends are asking: So what? How will these decisions by the Legislature affect our local community? Let me try to explain.

Ogden is a unique gem in Utah. It is unquestionably the most culturally, ethnically and religiously diverse community in the state. It's a blue collar town. My feelings on this subject are passionate: That diversity is one of the main reasons I love living in Weber County.

The needs and interests of the citizens of Utah's Junction City differ from, say, the residents of Orem or Pleasant View. In our democracy, Ogden's citizens need a voice in our state government to represent their interests.

So, given the new maps for the State House and State Senate, what happened to Ogden? Perhaps you've heard the term "pizza slice" applied to Salt Lake City in the Congressional redistricting map. Well, Ogden was turned into a pizza in both the State House and Senate maps.

For example, in the State House map, picture a jagged line cutting through Ogden from Mount Ogden Park on the southeast to 12th Street and A Avenue on the northwest. That center-east section of the city was cut off and lumped with Ogden Valley and Morgan County. Picture another fat finger jutting down from the North Ogden/Pleasant View area, enclosing much of the northeast of Ogden city. The leftover center-west slice got lumped in with large portions of rural western Weber County.

The Senate map, while somewhat different, does the same thing. Ogden gets sliced into three different pieces. One especially noteworthy piece shows a zombie-like mutation of PacMan that manages to combine the northeast sections of Ogden and Weber County with the Kimball Junction community in Park City!

Why does this matter to a diverse community like Ogden? Look at who represents Weber County in the legislature today. There are three senators and seven House members, all white male Republicans.

I can just hear the protests of those ten men: "Just because I'm a white male Mormon Republican doesn't mean I can't represent Ogden!" True enough - but shouldn't the voters of Ogden have that choice? By splitting up Northern Utah's most important city into little pieces, its citizens are denied the most basic right of our Republic: to choose their own representatives. Instead, the incumbents are choosing their voters.

I'd agree that those aforementioned ten men are great advocates for Ogden's business community. But who's representing the blue-collar working families struggling on incomes that are diminishing every year while their cost of living goes up? Who's representing Ogden's vibrant Hispanic and African-American communities? Who's representing Ogden's struggling single working mothers? Who's advocating for the diverse mixture of children in her inner-city schools?

Republicans label these arguments as Democratic whining. But the process was more about protecting incumbency than political parties. For the first time, Weber County had no Democrats in the Legislature during redistricting. The result: Legislative areas in Salt Lake County with elected Democrats don't look too bad. But it appears Ogden was tossed under the bus.

What's the alternative? My good friend Mark Sage, a leader in the Fair Boundaries movement, has been touring the state preaching their gospel: Keep communities together. When he presented their proposed maps, he was often asked, "How would this affect my incumbent legislators?" His honest answer: "I don't know. We didn't look at incumbency as a factor." The fair boundaries goal will only be reached when an independent commission, divorced from politics, draws the lines without regard to protecting incumbents of either party.

How can we bring this about? From school vouchers, to attacks on access to government records, to secret redistricting meetings that throw out a year's worth of public input, the power brokers on Utah's Capitol Hill have operated under this assumption: We can do whatever we want. The public may get angry, but their memories are short. They'll forget by the next election.

That strategy, unfortunately, has been proven sadly effective over the years. It is up to you, dear voters, to prove those assumptions wrong this time.

Olsen is the chairman of Weber County Democrats. He lives in Plain City.

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