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Look for big changes in political landscape

SHARE Look for big changes in political landscape

Next Tuesday Utah's 104 legislators will meet in special session in the Capitol to decide how their own district boundaries — and those of Utah's three U.S. House members and 15 State School Board members — will be redrawn starting in the 2002 elections.

They could also consider a "minor" change to Utah election law that could — should new 2002 state GOP delegates decide — allow the May 2002 state GOP convention to rescind or change the plan for closed Republican primaries next year.

In either case, the decisions made over the next several days will have long-term impacts for Utah's political landscape.

For example, residents of Salt Lake City's Avenues area could find themselves represented in the U.S. House by conservative Republican Jim Hansen. They could also be represented in the state Senate by freshman Sen. Dan Eastman, R-Bountiful.

The Avenue residents — as a group some of the most liberal, diverse citizens in the state — could well be asking after next week what the heck happened. And they wouldn't be alone.

A number of Utahns will get new representatives next year because of the work of the Legislative Redistricting Committee and others who drew literally hundreds of maps on computers at the State Capitol and headquarters of the state Republican Party and Democratic Party.

Admittedly, most of the maps presented next Tuesday were "officially" draw on state computers. But one has to believe some of the major changes came about because of work done in the ground floor offices in the Eagle Gate apartments on South Temple, where the state GOP headquarters are located.

Redistricting is a partisan effort. Everyone agrees with that. The question is, how partisan will it be?

I was around in 1981 when legislative and U.S. House lines were redrawn following the 1980 Census. But I didn't cover the hearings that year. Interestingly enough, last spring as the current process got under way, someone sent me a thick copy of a redistricting plan put together by a bipartisan commission that then-Democratic Gov. Scott M. Matheson set up.

Best I can tell, the Republican-controlled Legislature didn't pay much attention to that plan. Matheson vetoed what the Legislature came up with, and then lawmakers overrode that veto.

In 1991 I did cover redistricting. And as memory serves, it was at times a partisan affair but not as bitter as this year's effort has been so far.

No worry of a veto 10 years ago. GOP Gov. Norm Bangerter, a former speaker of the Utah House, signed what Republican lawmakers did that year.

But if you will recall, in 1991 Utah had two Democratic U.S. House members: Rep. Wayne Owens in the 2nd District and Bill Orton in the 3rd District. While Hansen suggested that each of the three House districts have rural and urban elements, if Utah Republicans had done that they would have necessarily made Orton's 3rd District more Democratic — as they made Owens' more Republican.

So the 2nd District was left wholly in Salt Lake County again.

Now, ironically, some may say, Matheson's son, Rep. Jim Matheson, sits in the 2nd District seat, and Republicans seem determined to make his district more Republican.

The main GOP congressional redistricting map — which no one will take credit for publicly — gives Hansen just over half of Salt Lake City's population, including the lower Avenues, and pushes Matheson's 2nd District into 14 rural counties in the east and south part of the state.

Democrats, and a few Republicans, if I can believe my e-mail, are loudly complaining.

Gov. Mike Leavitt says he "has given my opinion, when asked, about certain aspects" of redistricting. But by and large he has stayed out of the fray — except to say he didn't like an early version of a state Senate map that divided up his old hometown of Cedar City. That was quickly fixed — Cedar City gets its own state senator this time around.

Leavitt declined to say what he would do about the congressional map, adding that he wants the final results to be "fair — and defendable both logically and legally."

Besides getting new representatives, the special session could also act on the state GOP plan to close the 2002 primary to only registered Republicans.

This issue has not hit the public's radar screen. And in fact may not until citizens who usually vote Republican show up at the polls next June and are told they can't vote in the GOP primary unless they sign a card officially — and publicly — stating they are a Republican.

A recent Deseret News/KSL poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates found that 56 percent of those who consider themselves Republicans don't want to close their own primary; 69 percent of all Utahns don't want a closed GOP primary.

If lawmakers don't act in the special session to give 2002 state Republican delegates another shot at changing their minds about a closed primary, in the next two years state law could be changed to allow any registered voter to change his or her party affiliation on primary election day, some lawmakers say.

That would mean — if a voter didn't mind publicly stating which party he belonged to — anyone could register as a Republican at the polls and get a GOP primary ballot.

In any case, next week's legislative session will have a real impact on Utah voters for years to come. While our hearts and minds may be in New York City, Washington or watching for military action in the Middle East, you would be wise to also pay attention to what is happening in the Utah State Capitol.

Deseret News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at bbjr@desnews .