By Marc Kovac
An attempt by House Republicans to move a new congressional redistricting plan failed to gain sufficient Democratic support for a vote Thursday but did prompt a lawmaker walkout and shouting matches when opponents attempted floor speeches on the issue.
The new GOP-drawn plan will instead head to committee hearings next week and further behind-closed-door negotiations as the two parties attempt to reach an agreement to stop a referendum from reaching the November 2012 ballot and potentially forcing a federal court to draw the state’s district lines.
House Speaker Bill Batchelder, a Republican from Medina, said his majority party ultimately will move a new map, whether Democrats agree to the changes or not.
“At a certain point, I’ve got to quit, and then we would have to pass a more partisan map,” Batchelder said. “We probably can’t negotiate with anybody that thinks that the state’s 50-50 Democrat.”
Democrats countered that they offered a redistricting plan with a majority of Republican or Republican-leaning districts, and GOP leaders in the Ohio House were unwilling to compromise.
“We’re either going to work together to reach compromise, to accomplish the goal that Ohioans want to see, competitive districts,” said Rep. Matt Szollosi, a Democrat from Toledo. “Or the Republican majority is going to remain entrenched in politics, quite honestly, and going to work to continue the gridlock in Washington and remain in this stance to protect at all costs their own political advantage.”
Congressional district lines are redrawn every decade to account for population changes noted in the decennial U.S. Census.
The Ohio House and Senate OK’d new congressional district maps in September in votes that were mostly along party lines.
The plan includes 16 districts, down from 18 due to slow population growth in the state. A dozen appear to favor Republicans, while four others, including a new one covering much of the city of Columbus, would favor Democrats.
Republican supporters say the new maps will pass constitutional muster and were drawn within the confines of the law and court precedent.
Democratic opponents, however, contend the maps represent partisan gerrymandering at its worst and were drawn to ensure Republican victories over the next 10 years.
The Ohio Democratic Party has launched a referendum effort to place the redistricting plan before voters in November 2012. Members began collecting signatures on petitions this week toward that effort.
House Republicans and Democrats have been negotiating a potential compromise to avoid that referendum, and Batchelder said the new map unveiled Thursday includes changes sought by opponents of the original plan.
The biggest changes in the revamped proposal affected a handful of counties. Toledo, for example, would be split between two districts instead of three. Dayton would be unified in one district instead of two. And a sprawling district encompassing numerous counties in south-central Ohio was made more compact.
The Mahoning Valley is barely touched by the updated map.
Based on information provided by House Democrats, the new GOP plan would make the new 13th Congressional District, consisting largely of the current 17th District, 0.01 of a percent less Democratic. That would happen by taking a tiny portion of Mahoning County and moving it to the new 6th Congressional District.
The amount is so small that it’s not detectable on redistricting maps, and the Republicans haven’t yet provided details on that change.
The new 14th District, which would include upper Trumbull County, isn’t changed with the updated map.
Other parts of the Republican-drawn redistricting plan passed by lawmakers in September and signed into law by Gov. John Kasich received only minor alterations.
And Batchelder said he’s still open to negotiations with Democrats to further revamp the maps.
“I’m trying to find out what it is that they’re looking for,” he said. “I know what we’re looking for. If we can bring that together closer, we’d be in a position to do so.”
Minority Leader Armond Budish, a Democrat from the Cleveland area, said members on his side of the aisle offered their own map for Republicans’ consideration, but the majority party rejected it.
“We’ve put forth a reasonable proposal that recognizes the current political makeup, but gives voters the ultimate say in who represents them in Congress,” he said in a released statement.
Republicans in the House formally introduced their new plan Thursday and attempted a floor vote without going through the usual committee process or 24-hour waiting period. The move would have required support from some Democrats, who did not approve.
But the bill still generated heated debate as Budish and Rep. Bob Hagan of Youngstown, D-60th, attempted to offer criticism from the floor.
About a dozen Republicans walked out of the chamber when Budish was speaking, and Hagan ended up in a shouting match with some remaining GOP lawmakers who tried to call his speech out of order.
“I’m left wondering what the hell we’re doing down here,” Hagan said, holding up a copy of The Vindicator, with a headline noting that the Youngstown area’s poverty rate was the highest in the nation. “We’ve introduced legislation that brings us down here that does nothing to put people to work, to bring people out of poverty, to take care of health care.”
And he shouted in response to GOP lawmakers, “Don’t interrupt me. This is about the Constitution and my ability and right to speak. So don’t you dare interrupt me. I have a right to talk to everyone in here. And those of you that walked out, you don’t have the courage to listen.”
Contributor: Vindicator reporter David Skolnick