It's 1989 and the ghost of Elbridge Gerry and the spirit of his namesake - "gerrymandering" - are beginning to stalk the land.
Gerry is the Massachusetts governor whose party in 1811 rigged state election districts so grotesquely that one looked like a salamander, giving rise to the term gerrymander.In 1992, states from Maine to California will redistrict to adjust for 1990 census figures.
In Utah, both parties are jockeying for position in a year that will almost certainly change the political landscape for a decade - if not a generation - with a strong possibility that five of the state's six top elective offices will be occupied by new faces.
Nowhere are party people working with any more dedication than in rock-ribbed Republican Utah, where the two parties are looking at "adjusting" the boundaries of the 2nd Congressional District, encompassing most of Salt Lake County and now occupied by Democratic Rep. Wayne Owens.
Republicans feel there was major misdistricting nationwide in 1980 that unfairly benefited the Democrats, and they want to get some relief next time around. Democrats want to hold what they have and improve their numbers if possible.
Based on the results of the 1988 House elections, Rep. Guy Vander Jagt, R-Mich., who heads the House Republican Campaign Committee, said in November that 54 percent of the votes cast in House races were Republican, but his party won only 44 percent of the seats.
The reason a census causes such partisan concern is the continuing shift of population to the South and West, cutting representation in the North and East, but adding House seats in the younger states, including Utah.
Lee Atwater, the Republican national chairman, has made redistricting one of his top two priorities. His press secretary, Leslie Goodman, told the Deseret News that the effort is now being studied by a special strategy panel made up of such GOP operators as Ed Rawlins, Charles Black and Rich Bond.
So far the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has not begun computer work, according to spokesman Howard Schloss.
In Utah, the Republicans who control the Legislature would like dearly to gerrymander Owens out of office. If they could take away enough Democratic-leaning precincts and give the 2nd District enough Republicans, they figure they could have a chance of beating him - or whoever runs in the district that includes Salt Lake City in 1992 or thereafter. The problem for the Republicans, however, is that to take safe Republican voters away from the 1st and 3rd districts could make it tougher for GOP candidates in the those districts.
Bountiful, for example, is safely in the GOP column in most elections. Jim Hansen, who has had close elections against former Democratic Rep. Gunn McKay, does not want to give up the Bountiful Republicans and has already chatted "laughingly," as he puts it, on the subject with Gov. Norm Bangerter.
Utah governors cannot veto the Legislature's districting bills (a relic of the Rampton-Matheson period of Democratic governors and Republican legislatures), but Bangerter will probably have a voice in divvying up the state to Republican tastes.
Owens, sounding wistful, said he would like to cut a deal with Hansen in order to keep Bountiful in the 1st District and out of his. No deal, Hansen says, even while saying that he will keep Bountiful. An Owens spokesman said this week that the congressman is looking at what help he can give to Democratic candidates for the Utah Legislature to try to head off Republican plans.
Hansen suggests (though he says the Legislature will do the redrawing) his 1st District give up Piute, Kane, Wayne and Garfield counties containing about 12,000 people all told to Howard Nielson's 3rd District.
"I'll hate to see those counties go," Hansen said. "Among other things, I enjoy hunting down there."
Hansen said his district has grown from 487,000 in 1980 to 590,000 - 70,000 more than Owens' 2nd District. The 3rd District, which has grown by 35,000, would give up West Jordan, West Valley City, portions of Taylorsville and Kearns south to 47th South, and possibly Magna.
Nielson suggested this week that to put Democratic Magna in his 3rd District would be a gerrymander that might tip Owens' 2nd District to the Republicans.
"I, of course, won't be involved in 1992," Nielson said. "I'm not sure about 1990, but I'm positive I won't be running in 1992. I'll be 68 and want to spend time with my family, on some church work and other personal things."
By the time redistricting takes effect, Jim Hansen probably won't be running for a House seat either, and Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, will have made a decision whether he will run for a fourth term. Bangerter will be at the end of his second term as well, a conjunction of political planets that could presage a possible turnover of five of the six top elected positions in Utah in a single year.
Though nothing is absolutely certain in politics, Owens is unlikely to get a free ride to a Senate seat. Washington sources say Garn has promised to sit at the Capitol with his filing fee in hand to run again if Owens tries for the Senate in 1992.