Jerry Kopel

I've never seen a real ox pierced by another animal's horn, but I understand the proverbial "it depends on whose ox is gored". So I have sympathy for former Colorado Springs State Sen. Jeff Wells' comments regarding reapportionment of the state legislature in a recent speech to the Elephant Corral, a Republican activist club.

Wells, a member of the Reapportionment Commission, claimed constitutional provisions take a backseat to Democratic attempts to gain seats by gerrymandering districts.

I went through four reapportionments as a state legislator: 1966, 1972, 1982, and 1992. In fact, 18 of my 22 years in the legislature were spent in the minority party. The only way I could survive and retain my sanity was to make up a motto: "The bad guys always win."

That didn't refer to any individual or political party. It dealt with a system that allows power to be abused by whomever has the most muscle. Our legislative process is hardly ever fair. It certainly was never fair when it came to reapportionment.

The constitutional commission system to draw legislative district lines became law in a 1974 ballot effort by voters upset over 1972 lines drawn by a Republican legislature presided over by a Republican governor.

In 1972, House Majority Leader Carl Gustafson drew the House lines. He drew a line around legislator Betty Benevidez on the far western side of Denver and connected it to my house in the far eastern part of the city.

This could get rid of at least one Democrat. The district looked like an equatorial line on a world globe dividing the city, with portions of the boundaries through city parks just several yards wide. Newspapers didn't refer to it as "Jerrymander". That was too obvious. They called it "Bettymander". It was soon ridiculed out of existence.

In the 1970 election, I lived twenty homes from the southern end of my Democratic dominated district. After the 1972 reapportionment, living in the same house, I was twenty homes from the northern end of my Republican dominated district.

The year 1981 was the first year the constitutional system to choose members of the reapportionment commission was used. A Denver daily newspaper editorial page editor in 1989 recited what happened:

"Chief Justice Paul Hodges was a holdover from the old days when judges were chosen in partisan elections. Hodges, a staunch Republican, appointed four GOP activists to the reapportionment commission, not the least of whom was Bob Lee, who was one of the sharpest Republican strategists in Colorado's history.

"Lee became the commission's chairman and proceeded to outfox the Democrats on the panel, who were more interested in feathering their own political nests than in looking out for their party statewide. As a result, Lee was able to redistrict the Colorado legislature in a way that gave the Republican Party a tremendous but inequitable advantage."

The editor detailed reapportionment of Arapahoe and Jefferson counties into districts which contained one third of state legislators. Lee was able to produce 80 percent of those 33 elected as Republican, even though voters in the 33 districts were 36 percent Republican, 22 percent Democrat and 42 percent Independent.

After the 1984 election, 29 of the 100 legislators were Democrat and 71 were Republican. Of 19 Senate seats voted on, Democrats won four seats, and two of the Democrats had no opponent. Of 65 House seats, Democrats won 18, and seven of those 18 Democrats had no opponent.

There were five legislative elections from 1982 through 1990 with statewide Democrat and Republican registrations quite close and slightly more Independent voters. There are 35 Senate seats and 65 House seats. Multiply five times 35 and you get 175 Senate seats. Five times 65 equals 325 House seats.

Thanks to Mr. Lee, twice as many Republicans than Democrats were in the Senate due to those five elections (117 to 58) and 62 percent of the House were elected Republican (202 vs. 123).

The situation was better for the five election total following the 1992 reapportionment. The Senate was 54 percent Republican (95 to 80) although the House still was 60 percent Republican (194 vs. 131).

So Jeff, please don't cast aspersions on Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey's appointment of Democrat activists. She just followed a precedent begun by Chief Justice Hodges whose 1981 commission did everything Jeff Wells is blaming the 2001 commission for.

(Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House of Representatives.)

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