Redistricting MPLS: How it really went down

Categories: Minneapolis

Ward rejiggering still taints council races

With less than two weeks to go before a citywide election cycle culminates in Minneapolis, it's clear that the new ward boundaries that go into effect in January still loom large in this year's campaigns.

While much has been written in City Pages about the practical effects of the redrawing of electoral maps based on 2000 Census data--the pitting of two lefty incumbents against each other in the new Sixth Ward, and two black incumbents having to square off in the new Fifth--no one has spoken candidly about the intent behind the process.

(A prescient primer by CP's Britt Robson--from three and a half years ago--is here.)

But one source with close knowledge of the the backroom wheeling and dealing recently spoke with City Pages about what politicos involved hoped to gain from it.

The source, who was not on the redistricting commission and spoke on the condition of anonymity, confirms the oft-repeated belief among critics of the redistricting: Namely that much of the shenanigans revolved around the DFL party wanting to gain an upper hand against what was then a burgeoning Green Party.

"The Dems wanted the Greens worked on," the source says.

And it worked accordingly, with Green Party members Natalie Johnson Lee and Dean Zimmermann having to face incumbents Don Samuels and Robert Lilligren in the Fifth and Sixth, respectively. Those are the only current officeholders facing an incumbent challenger.

But that move--which survived a suit by Johnson Lee and Zimmermann, thus far--came with other negotiations.

Redistricting in Minneapolis comes every 10 years, and is done by an 11-person panel that consists of a chair and two members from each of the state's "majority" parties. Back in 2000, that meant the Republicans, DFLers and Independence Party each had two representatives. The city council gets a "majority" and "minority" party appointee, which meant yet another Democrat and one lone Green. The commission is rounded out by two Park Board appointees.

The idea, according to the city's web site, is to have wards that "shall consist of contiguous compact territory not more than twice as long as it is wide." Additionally, "whenever possible, ward boundaries shall follow the centerline of streets, avenues, alleys and boulevards." Finally, "population shall be determined by use of the official population as stated by census tracts and blocks and the official United States census. The population in Minneapolis based on the 2000 Census is 382,618. The population quota or ideal population per ward is 29,432."

(A piece on the history of the redistricting ran in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine. And maps of before and after in Minneapolis are here. And here's a State of Minnesota page dedicated to the topic.)

That spirit of the law was not neccesarily followed locally.

For starters, according to the source, the Third Ward was set up basically to be handed to Kari Dziedzic, daughter of former city council member, former Minneapolis cop and current Park Board member Walt Dziedzic. Incumbent Joe Biernat was run out of office on a federal indictment, and Samuels filled the void in a special election in 2003.

Samuels now faces Johnson Lee in the Fifth for reelection, and many old-guard DFLers are lined up behind him. "The Democrats couldn't be happier," says the source. (The main Third Ward candidate, Diane Hofstede, a longtime DFLer and Library Board member, takes on the Green Party's Aaron Neumann.)

But, of course, Republicans and Independents had to be satisfied as well. Independents got their viable candidate in Lisa McDonald, a former rep for the 10th ward who lost in the last mayoral primary and now is running in the city's 13th ward. The last two council reps from that ward, Steve Minn and Barret Lane, were independents, and McDonald is an independent with a small "i."

Meanwhile, Republicans haven't been represented at city hall for a generation. And nobody is eager to wear the moniker in a town where Nader could run for president tomorrow and get 20 percent of the population excited.

So what happened, according to the source, was a great effort to find a "Republican opportunity ward."

That ward is the Seventh, which is currently run by incumbent Lisa Goodman, and she echoes the scenario brought up by the source.

Goodman's ward picked up major chunks of downtown from the Fifth Ward on the north side. Most of the new area in her ward is along the valuable riverfront on the west side of the Mississippi--where a new conservative constituency has cropped up thanks to high-end housing that has boomed in recent years.

Another person close to redistricting insists that Goodman had no hand in the redistricting, but there was an idea that many of these new residents made it clear that they wanted Goodman--more sympathetic to their conservative bent than Natalie Johnson Lee, who has represented these burgeoning neighborhoods--as their council member.

"There is no doubt that the intent was to have a Downtown ward available to Republicans," says our main source here. "All the Republicans are moving to Downtown, and there was no way that particular hoi polloi was going to let Natalie represent them."

The end result is that the Fifth Ward is 83 percent minority and overwhelmingly poor. That's known in redistricting parlance as "packing," and is theoretically illegal. But few courts have wanted to touch redistricting cases.

With that, there was only one remaining ward for the politicos to mess with. Well, two, really. Eighth Ward leader Robert Lilligren, who leans about as left as one can without being a Green, was suddenly cast in the Sixth Ward. Dean Zimmermann, who is an actual Green, was forced to move to retain the ward he represented. It's not clear who has the upperhand in that race, but it's worth noting that Zimmermann is being investigated by the FBI.

So, the Eighth Ward, which is one of the poorest in the city, and has been dominated by minorities at the polls for two decades, is now a contest between two white candidates, Marie Hauser and Elizabeth Glidden. It will be the first time the ward has been represented by a white candidate (Lilligren is American Indian) since 1983.

"We called it the Eighth whore," the redistricting source says, noting that the redistricting commission lumped parts of the relatively well-to-do Kingfield neighborhood into Ward Eight. "The bone to the wealthy, white DFL leadership was that they could have a new chunk of the ward to prop up a constituency."

In other words, all politics is local. But, apparently, so is gerrymandering. There are no other real challenges for current sitting council members, though a surprise or two could happen.

Even so, the process in Minneapolis was twofold: 1) Ensure that the DFL stays in some kind of predominate power; and 2) Make everybody else skew to the right, poor communities of color be damned.

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