March 10, 2011 | LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL | Original Article

Hispanics hopeful over redrawing of Nevada's political map

Fernando Romero, the president of Hispanics in Politics, is planning to move into the 1st Congressional District, ground zero for the growing Latino power in Southern Nevada. He might not have to. The district might come to him.

Using a bit of computer magic, it's possible to outline a new 1st Congressional District so Hispanics account for half its population instead of the current 37 percent, according to one hypothetical map drawn for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. So, Nevada could have its first minority-majority House district, increasing the odds of electing the state's first Latino congressman one day.

"It's very difficult anymore to ignore us," said Romero, who now lives five blocks outside the 1st Congressional District. It covers most of Las Vegas and parts of Hispanic-heavy North Las Vegas. "We're looking at having a Hispanic district. And it does look like it's possible."

Even before lawmakers start re­shaping the political map to accommodate a new fourth congressional district and a population boom in Clark County, the jockeying for advantage has begun. While Latinos are pushing for their own House district, Democrats have filed a pre-emptive lawsuit to challenge any map. And Republicans have been meeting privately to discuss political and legal strategy, including with GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval's chief of staff, Heidi Gansert.

"The fact that this lawsuit was filed by the Democrats is an indication the Legislature isn't going to send anything over that Gov. Sandoval will sign," said Mark Amodei, the Nevada GOP chairman, who met last week with party leaders and lawmakers on the matter. "It shows you Nevada is a big battleground. And at some point, they think this thing is going to court."

Nevada Democratic Party Chairman Sam Lieberman wouldn't discuss the lawsuit . The party's attorney filed it Feb. 24 on behalf of four Democrats in the First Judicial District Court in Carson City. That is the same day the U.S. Census released figures showing Nevada had grown to 2.7 million people in the past decade.

That rapid growth, the fastest rate in the nation at 35 percent, ballooned some Assembly and state Senate districts: Now about one-fifth are overpopulated while others are too spare.

At the congressional level, the state was awarded a fourth House seat so it could cut the size of its three bloated districts.

The population in electoral districts are supposed to be roughly the same.

The overinflated districts that must shrink the most belong to Republicans, but lean Democratic in voter registration:

■ U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, whose 3rd Congressional District has 1,043,855 people, is the most populated congressional district in America.

■ State Sen. Elizabeth Halseth of Las Vegas represents state Senate District 9 in Clark County, with 354,064 people, nearly triple what it should have.

■ Assemblyman Scott Hammond of Las Vegas represents Assembly District 13 in Clark County, which has 256,407 people, four times too many.

Ken Fernandez, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said there is more flexibility to draw new lines at the state level than at the congressional level in what is one of the most partisan legislative fights.

"Because this is a political battle between two parties, you usually get a compromise," Fernandez said. "And the compromise is usually in protecting incumbents. Hispanics have a very important role, but the compromise is always partisan."

Under that theory, Republicans probably would want to draw the new lines for the 3rd Congressional District, state Senate District 9 and Assembly District 13 to push out some Democrats who have made recent elections too close for comfort. And Democrats might go along with the idea -- as long as they get a few new friendlier districts in exchange -- at the Assembly, state Senate and U.S. House levels.

Both political parties are crafting competing plans and watching for the other to make the first move.

redrawing boundaries

Although highly political, redistricting starts every 10 years as a math problem. The state population is divided by the number of districts, which equals the number of people who should live in each area. Under the 2010 census:

■ Nevada's four congressional districts should have 675,138 people each.

■ The 21 state Senate districts should have 128,598 people each.

■ And the state's 42 Assembly districts should have 64,299 people each.

Politics comes into play with the redrawing of boundaries as each party tries to gain an advantage in registered voters.

Priority No. 1 is protecting current officeholders to ensure re-election and to lay the groundwork for future gains. In 2001, Democrats set the stage for the takeover of the state Senate in 2008 in exchange for drawing the new Congressional District 3 in Southern Nevada to be competitive, giving neither party an advantage.

The main tension in 2011 will be between urban southern Democrats looking to pick up House and legislative districts and rural and northern Republicans pushing to add seats to the Legislature. Clark County will gain one Senate seat and one or two Assembly seats because of its growth to 72 percent of the state population. That means Northern Nevada will lose those seats unless the Legislature expands. Now, Clark County has 14 state Senate seats and 29 in the Assembly.

Another big factor is Hispanics, who account for one of every four people in Nevada. Latinos made major gains in the 2010 election, expanding their legislative membership from two to eight thanks partly to term limits, which created open seats in both houses. All of the Hispanic lawmakers are Democrats, and half represent districts with Latino majorities.

In 2001, Hispanics felt cheated after a deal to expand the Legislature collapsed and an open seat race didn't materialize. A decade later, Romero said he and other Latinos are ready to sue if Hispanics are shortchanged.

"Beyond any shadow of a doubt," he said when asked whether Hispanics would consider legal action.

But making the legal case for a Hispanic congressional district might be tough.

Hispanic majority district

David Wasserman of The Cook Political Report is a leading redistricting analyst. He put together a map for the Review-Journal that showed it's possible to create a legal 1st Congressional District with a population that is "just barely over 50 percent Hispanic."

But that includes 6.3 percent under the voting age of 18 and an unknown number of adults who aren't U.S. citizens. So it would be hard to argue Hispanics deserve their own district if it's not possible to cobble together a voting age majority, the court standard, Wasserman said.

"So it is really legislators' call on whether to draw a Hispanic majority district" based on general population alone, he said. "And a lawsuit may not automatically force the drawing of such a district."

Wasserman and other analysts predicted Sandoval and Democratic legislators will compromise, agreeing to shore up Heck's district by giving the 3rd Congressional District more GOP-leaning territory in exchange for creating a new Democratic-leaning district in the Las Vegas area. That would leave the state with a 2-2 Republican-Democratic balance because Rep. Shelley Berkley's 1st Congressional District probably will remain a safe seat and Rep. Dean Heller's 2nd Congressional District probably will continue to cover GOP territory across upper Northern Nevada.

One other factor that could make it easier to redraw the districts held by Berkley and Heller is that both are considering running for U.S. Sen. John Ensign's job, which would remove the incentive to protect the two incumbents.

"If they're not in the mix, it gives a little more freedom on the map drawing," said David Damore, a political science professor at UNLV who has written about redistricting. "Heck's going to have his preferences, but I don't know how many allies he has in the state Legislature, and it's not like he had a huge victory last time around."

In the end, Damore said, "I think it's going to be pretty contentious and might not get done in the regular session. Will it end up in court? I would say yes if the budget debate gets really, really nasty and they can't move anyone on re­districting."

bargaining chips

Although redrawing districts is a separate issue, it often gets caught up in bargaining at the end of the legislative session.

Sandoval submitted a $5.8 billion budget for 2011-2013 with a promise not to raise taxes, a vow the GOP caucuses in the state Senate and Assembly have backed so far. Democrats argue the budget cuts too deeply, especially education, and falls at least $2 billion short of needs, meaning new revenue and taxes may be required.

Redistricting could be held hostage to budget demands.

Assembly Minority Leader Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, said he knows it might come down to horse trading. To retain Heck's seat, the GOP caucus might give up on the idea of expanding the Legislature to protect rural and Northern Nevada lawmakers from losing seats.

Two of those GOP senators will be termed out anyway: Dean Rhoads of Tuscarora and Minority Leader Mike McGinness. And state Sen. Greg Brower, R-Reno, is completing retired state Sen. Bill Raggio's term and hasn't said whether he wants to run for the seat, which could be wiped off the new map.

"I think we'll probably end up with a solid R, two D's and, well, we'll see what that third one looks like," Goicoechea said, referring to Heck's 3rd Congressional District. "It sure piqued our interest that the Democrats filed a lawsuit. I'm sure that's their fallback position."

political twists

On the Assembly side, only one member is termed-out, Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas. And he, like several other lawmakers, has aspirations of running for Congress. That adds yet another political twist to redistricting this year, as those with higher ambitions weigh in to make sure their homes fall within the district where they want to run in 2012.

Sandoval could veto any redistricting plan approved by the Democratic-led Legislature if he thinks it gives the opposing party undue advantage. He also could call a special session to finish the job.

An impasse or a disputed plan could send the matter to a judge to decide the outcome for the first time since court battles in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Democratic chairmen of the state Senate and Assembly legislative operations and elections committees handling redistricting both said they aren't looking for a fight -- in court or in the Legislature -- and want the public's involvement.

State Sen. David Parks and Assemblyman Tick Segerblom, both of Las Vegas, will hold an initial joint hearing in Carson City today . They will have field hearings in Fallon on March 24, Reno on March 31 and Las Vegas on April 2.

Citizens and interest groups can play around with district maps, designing their own plans, on one computer workstation inside the Legislative Building in Carson City and another inside the Grant Sawyer office complex in Las Vegas.

Segerblom said it's too soon to say whether lawmakers will agree to draw a Hispanic minority-majority congressional district. And he said not to read too much into the lawsuit filed by the Nevada Democratic Party's counsel.

"To my knowledge, the lawsuit is prophylactic in nature and doesn't indicate one way or another the prospects that things will end up in court," Segerblom said.

Both Segerblom and Parks said they aren't in favor of expanding the Legislature, yet remain open to the idea.

"Everything's on the table, and we're certainly looking at all the possibilities." Parks said. "We're encouraging all groups to come forward with proposals."