OGDEN — As is, District 9 of the Utah House covers a diverse swath of terrain.
To the west are open areas where farm critters graze, notes Kathie Darby, the Democrat from West Haven who's running for the Weber County post in elections next Tuesday. "Then you have inner-city Ogden (to the east) and everything in between," she said, including portions of Roy and West Haven.
She's familiar with the district's disparate communities, says she's capable of serving them if elected, like the Republican hopeful for the seat, Calvin Musselman, who's also from West Haven. Still, Darby worries the current district boundaries potentially shortchange Ogden, a Democratic stronghold in red Weber County, and don't allow for the best representation. Musselman questions that assessment, and says the diversity of District 9 parallels the sort of diversity there is across the nation, just making it imperative that its representative be mindful of the district's varied interests.
Either way, the debate underscores some of the issues behind Proposition 4, the Utah ballot initiative calling for creation of a commission that would help draw the state's legislative boundaries. As is, some critics say Utah lawmakers, currently responsible for the task, draw the boundaries to favor the state's GOP majority, undercutting the already tenuous power of Democrats and others. Indeed, the issue is germane for some Weber County Democrats because the division of bluish Ogden, with portions spread among five Utah House districts, unfairly dilutes the party's power and influence, they charge.
"If you look year after year, Ogden's always gone blue," said Zach Thomas, chairman of the Weber County Democratic Party and a Proposition 4 backer.
Yet all five Utah House seats representing parts of Ogden, Districts 7, 8, 9, 10 and 29, are held by Republican lawmakers, leaving him skeptical. Lawmakers in the GOP-controlled legislature, Thomas said, "knew exactly what they were doing when they cut up those districts."
Proposition 4 proponents, meanwhile, emphasize that leaders pushing the initiative come from across the political spectrum and say the issue isn't about any particular political party. It's about making sure constituents are fairly represented, that their districts are logically shaped to keep communities intact, not sliced up and spread out.
"To me, it's a foundational issue. If we don't get elections right, nothing else works," said Jeff Wright, Republican co-chairman of Better Boundaries, the group spearheading Proposition 4. Splitting communities into different legislative districts simply to benefit an incumbent political official or political party "takes away from the will of the people."
Utah Sen. Ralph Okerlund, a Republican from Monroe, said in a rebuttal against Proposition 4 that the measure is a "cleverly disguised partisan power grab" by Democrats. It aims mainly to create a U.S. House district in the Salt Lake City area that's more Democratic leaning, he thinks.
Musselman worries Proposition 4 would undermine the power of the people to control redistricting through election of the legislators who now handle the task, a concern Okerlund also voiced. "That gives me pause," Musselman said.
Proposition 4 calls for creation of seven-member appointed body to handle redistricting after each national headcount, conducted every 10 years by the U.S. Census Bureau. The commission's recommendations, subject to approval by the Utah Legislature, would aim to minimize division of cities and counties and keep local communities intact, per the proposition language.
LIKE-MINDED PEOPLE, LIKE-MINDED LEGISLATOR
That Ogden, the largest city in Weber County, is Democratic, at least more Democratic than the rest of county, is evident by a review of results from the 2016 general election:
- In presidential voting that year, Democrat Hillary Clinton won 31 of Ogden's 45 voting precincts and Republican Donald Trump won just 14, though he easily won the popular vote in the county overall. In the 114 precincts outside Ogden, Trump won 111, Clinton won just two and one precinct went for another candidate.
- Voters casting straight-party Democratic votes, a measure of ardent party supporters, outnumbered GOP straight-party voters in 30 of Ogden's 45 precincts. GOPers outnumbered Democrats in 14 of the precincts and the two parties tied in another. Outside Ogden, GOP straight-party voters outnumbered Democrats in 111 of the 114 districts.
- Democrats won just 13 of 159 precincts in voting in the seven Utah House races but 12 of them were in Ogden, with one in Washington Terrace. Republicans won overall voting in all seven of the contests.
- In voting in the 1st District U.S. House race, Democrat Peter Clemens won 22 of Ogden's 45 precincts, with Rep. Rob Bishop, the GOP incumbent and winner of the contest, getting 21. The two tied in two other Ogden precincts. Outside Ogden in Weber County, Bishop won all the precincts with more than just a handful of voters, the overwhelming majority, and garnered 58.4 percent of the vote. Districtwide, Bishop won 65.9 percent of the vote.
Figures like that fuel Weber County Democrats' contentions that they'd have better luck at winning at least one Utah House race, maybe two, if the districts were configured differently. Democrats have a particularly strong presence west of Harrison Boulevard up and down the city while GOPers dominate on the northern and southern ends of the city along the East Bench.
Utah House Districts 8 and 10 each contain several Ogden precincts that have leaned Democratic, or at least had a purplish cast. District 8 extends into the East Bench area and north-central Ogden while District 10, represented by Democrat LaWanna Shurtliff through 2008, extends into southern Ogden. Shurtliff is running again for the District 10 post this cycle after a 10-year break, facing GOPers Lorraine Brown and Terry Schow, a write-in hopeful.
In touting their prospects, Democrats also point to District 9.
Through the 2010 election, it sat entirely in Ogden in the southwestern part of the city and it had been held by a Democrat, Neil Hansen, though GOPer Jeremy Peterson ousted him in the 2010 vote. After redistricting following the 2010 census, several Democratic-leaning precincts in District 9 were moved to Districts 8 and 10 and it gained several red-leaning districts in the Roy and West Haven areas further west, accounting for its current configuration.
Darby, the Democratic District 9 hopeful, says she's familiar with the varied needs of the zone and could represent it. That said, she makes the case for keeping similar areas with common needs and interests — like some of the areas of Ogden spread across several Utah House districts — within a district.
"In my opinion, like-minded people who live in an area with a like-minded legislator have more of their needs met," she said, also noting that West Haven, much smaller than Ogden, is split into three House districts. As is, District 9 since redistricting has very rural interests in its western section and more urban concerns to the east, where it extends into Ogden's older core.
Still, a district's configuration doesn't assure success for one party or another, as shown by Peterson's defeat of Hansen in 2010, before District 9 was reconfigured, removing Democratic-leaning precincts.
Whatever the case, Hansen, who's vying for a seat on the Weber County Commission as a Democrat this cycle with Republican Scott Jenkins, worries that splitting Ogden into so many districts reduces the power of city residents to have say. If a district has residents from Ogden and several other locales, there's no guarantee Ogden concerns will carry weight.
"Do you think any of them are really going to listen to what Ogden has to say?" Hansen said.
Lynda Pipkin, chairwoman of the Weber County Republican Party, notes that under the current redistricting system, the public has a chance to weigh in and that lawmakers factor their suggestions. No matter how redistricting is handled, she added, there will be unhappy people.
"No matter who does the boundaries, there's going to be someone who doesn't like them," she said.