The contentious fight over where Minnesota will draw its new political boundaries shifted into gear Tuesday night, as advocates on all sides got their first hearing before a court-appointed panel in the Bloomington City Hall Chambers.
Judge Wilhelmina Wright told the audience of about 50 people that the five-person panel would create a new redistricting map if Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature not reach an agreement on a district map in February.
"While the panel wishes to give the Legislature every opportunity to complete redistricting, we as a panel must proceed with our work, if necessary, by Feb. 21, 2012, the statutory deadline for redistricting," Wright said.
Some in the audience argued for keeping cities in the same legislative districts. Others urged the court to think of minority populations as they draw the maps.
John Wexler of Brooklyn Park wants the cities of Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center in separate legislative districts because he believes it would help improve minority representation in the Legislature.
"I urge you to draw more just lines that will include these various groups, the African American, the American Indians, the Asians and Hispanics," Wexler said.
Some objected to that idea. David Nelson of Bloomington said minority and gay communities should not be given consideration when the court draws the political boundaries.
"We are all supposed to be equal," Nelson argued. "You can gather in a particular neighborhood but don't demand that you have political power based strictly on your sexual orientation or your ethnicity."
The court will use public testimony and arguments from the lawyers representing the parties to set guidelines on how the political boundaries will be drawn.
Officials from both political parties say they encouraged their supporters to testify before the panel, and many well-known activists played their parts. They hope is to influence the court's final decision and gain a political advantage when the new district boundaries are drawn.
Republicans said the court should draw the political lines based on geography, keeping cities and counties as intact as possible.
Michael Brodkorb, deputy chair of the Minnesota Republican Party, said the court should draw the lines based solely on population shifts and trends, which he says will help elect more Republicans.
"You have to draw the lines where the people live. What we're seeing now over the last 20 years is a real shift in population toward the exurban, towards traditionally strong Republican areas," Brodkorb said.
Republicans urged the court to adopt a map that was passed by the Legislature but vetoed by Democratic Gov. Dayton. Democrats haven't yet put forward a map of their own, but DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said the party will present a map to the court later this month.
Martin said the 2010 Census shows a population shift to the state's suburbs and exurbs, but he also argues that Minnesota's population has grown in other ways. For example, the Somali population in Rochester and the Latino population in southwestern Minnesota have greatly increased over the past decade.
"Part of the redistricting process is to make sure that as these new burgeoning communities start to become established that their political strength is not diluted but is reflected in the new lines," Martin said.
If the court adopts Martin's suggestion, it could give Democrats considerably more power in the Legislature and Congress since minority populations tend to vote for Democrats.
While Democrats and Republicans work to convince the court to give them a political edge, another group is working to keep the districts evenly balanced. Mike Dean of Common Cause Minnesota, a government watchdog group, said his group will encourage the panel to disregard incumbents and politically safe seats when drawing the lines.
"We've seen this more in other states where you have these safe districts. The court has largely respected competition and we want to make sure it stays that way."
The panel will hear testimony over the next week. The parties have to submit their proposed guidelines to the court by Oct. 19.