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Bipartisan deal struck on CT state House redistricting

Rep. Craig Fishbein, left, and Rep. Steve Stafstrom debate a judicial reappointment in a House largely emptied due to the COVID-19. (File)
Mark Pazniokas
Reps. Craig Fishbein (left) and Steve Stafstrom debate a judicial reappointment in a House largely emptied due to COVID-19. (File)

The General Assembly’s bipartisan Reapportionment Commission is expected to vote Thursday on new maps for the 151 state House districts to reflect population shifts counted by the pandemic-delayed 2020 U.S. Census.

On Wednesday, the House and Senate members of the commission emerged from their separate negotiating sessions with a deal on the House map but work remaining on the Senate map, according to House leaders.

As was the case 10 years ago, the commission might not set boundaries of the state’s five U.S. House districts by the Nov. 30 deadline, subjecting the congressional map to review by the Connecticut Supreme Court.

The commission is composed of eight lawmakers — two House Democrats, two House Republicans, two Senate Democrats and two Senate Republicans — and a ninth member they chose Tuesday in the unlikely event of needing a tiebreaker.

“I have no expectation that I will be voting,” said John McKinney of Westport, the former state Senate GOP leader chosen as the ninth member.

The commission effectively works as two separate bodies, with the House and Senate working separately on their maps, taking into account population shifts, the desires of the towns and the needs of incumbents.

The Democrats are House Speaker Matt Ritter of Hartford, House Majority Leader Jason Rojas of East Hartford, Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney of New Haven and Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff of Norwalk.

The Republicans are House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora of North Branford and his deputy, Rep. Jason Perillo of Shelton; and Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly of Stratford and his deputy, Sen. Paul Formica of East Lyme.

As always, the final steps of the decennial process are opaque: No map will be subject to a public hearing before adoption, and rank-and-file lawmakers will have no opportunity to object.

One reason is that a change to any one district forces changes in others.

“The minute you start engaging lots of people in a process like that, it makes it really impossible to complete that work,” Rojas said. “I don’t know that I fully appreciated how even the smallest of changes in one part of the state can have a ripple effect across the rest of the state.”

Formica offered a more colloquial analysis: “It’s the classic whack-a-mole.”

Lawmakers held four public hearings, where residents of Wilton, Derby and Goshen appealed for lawmakers to place their divided communities within a single state House district.

“It does not matter which district you put us in, just make us whole please,” said Barbara L. Breor, the town clerk of Goshen, where there are 2,348 active voters.

Officials in Derby, the smallest town in Connecticut by area, complained that it is inexplicably divided among three House Districts. Suburban Wilton, represented in the House by a Norwalk Democrat and a New Canaan Republican, is seeking a divorce from urban Norwalk.

“Norwalk is a large urban city, while Wilton is a suburban small town,” Jennie Wong said in written testimony. “The demographics of Wilton and Norwalk are not comparable, and the interests of Wilton constituents are incompatible with that of the Norwalk constituents.”

Others urged a more transparent process.

“Transparency happens when draft maps created by legislators are released in advance of public hearings. Transparency happens when the commission takes feedback from constituents on new district lines and explains how and why specific reapportionment decisions are proposed in 2021,” said Jennifer Dayton of the League of Women Voters in Greenwich.

Ritter defended the process, saying that the bipartisan membership required by the state Constitution produced fairer maps than the ones in states where they are dictated by whichever party controls the state legislature.

“It ultimately requires at this point two political parties to agree on a map. I just can’t draw Congress any way I want or … the state House of Representatives to be 120-31 for the next 10 years,” Ritter said.

“We’re trying to keep all the important principles intact, as you know, respecting the integrity of towns and the demographic makeup of the communities as well as where the incumbents are located,” Candelora said.

The maps drawn 10 years ago have produced both strong Democratic majorities, as is currently the case, and nearly evenly divided chambers in the General Assembly. In 2016, Republicans came within five votes of a House majority and forced an 18-18 tie in the Senate.

The congressional map drawn 20 years ago, when Connecticut lost one of its six seats, was barely changed 10 years ago. That map produced GOP victories in three of the five districts as recently as 2004: the 2nd of eastern Connecticut, the 4th of Fairfield County and the 5th of western Connecticut.

Democrats won the 2nd and the 5th in 2006. The last to fall was the 4th, which had been held by Republicans for decades until Democrat Jim Himes unseated Republican Chris Shays in 2008.

But the political leanings of two districts have changed significantly in the past decade. The Democratic advantage in the 2nd has shrunk, and the 4th no longer is a battleground district — it is safely Democratic.

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