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Stirring the pot

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There’s nothing like stirring the pot in politics.

That’s just what a judicial panel did Tuesday when it reconfigured congressional and legislative districts, pitting incumbents against each other in certain districts and leaving open seats in others. The 8th Congressional District remained relatively unchanged according to political observers, with only a few townships in Beltrami County being added.

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That wasn’t the case with the Brainerd area’s legislative districts. Crow Wing and Aitkin counties will be paired in a new Senate District 10 that will straddle over the north side of Mille Lacs Lake. House District 10B will include Aitkin and most of Crow Wing County, with the more populous area of western Crow Wing County making up House District 10A.

All lawmakers in both the House and Senate will run for re-election as a result of the redistricting. The task to draw redistricting lines fell to a judicial panel when the Minnesota Legislature and governor could not agree on a plan.

Crow Wing and Morrison counties have been part of the same Senate district for most of the past century according to Central Lakes College instructor Steve Wenzel, a 29-year DFL legislator who also worked in the U.S. Agriculture Department under President George W. Bush.

“We’ve been like twins for almost a century, for all but about 10 years of the last century,” the former Little Falls lawmaker said. “It’s the most significant political impact on a state and it lasts a decade,” he said. “It brings in new lawmakers. It’s the one process that begins legislative careers and ends legislative careers.”

Wenzel said the new Senate District 10A, including Crow Wing and Aitkin counties, may lean slightly Republican since Aitkin County has been more conservative in recent years.

Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Brainerd, has new territory to campaign in but he isn’t paired up against an incumbent like Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, and Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji were, being placed in the same district.

Also placed in the same district were veteran lawmaker Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, and Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji. Another pairing of incumbents brings together Rep. Carolyn McElfpatrick, a Republican, and Rep. Tom Anzlec, a Democrat.

“It was a complete surprise to me,” Gazelka said of the shape of his new district. “I didn’t see any plans where I’d be moving to the east so far. I lose Morrison County and I got to know some really great folks down there.”

He thinks the Aitkin County portion of what could be his new district is similar to Crow Wing County in that it swings back and forth between the political parties.

Howes’ said he believed he retained only Hackensack, Walker and Shingobee Township of Cass County. He said he picked up a small portion of areas he had in his district 10 years ago. He would now have the city of Bemidji after having never represented a political entity bigger than Sylvan Township.

“Whatever happens, it is what it is,” Howes said. “I don’t think I’ll have any problem with Bemidji.”

Rep. John Ward, DFL-Brainerd, whose home is in what will be the new House District 10A said he’ll lose Crosby, Riverton, Trommald and some southern Crow Wing County townships. Ward said he and his wife have a summer place near Nisswa so he is familiar with that part of the county.

“People know who John Ward is and what he stand for,” Ward said.

Ward wouldn’t set a time table as to when he might decide whether to run for House District 10A or for Senate District 10.

“I’m going to look at everything and consider everything and make a decision based on what’s best for me and my family and my constituents,” Ward said. “I’m not ruling anything out.”

House District 10B currently has no incumbent living in its boundaries.

Rep. Mike LeMieur, R-Little Falls, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Most political observers agreed there would be no appeal of the judicial panel’s ruling.

“I’m pretty sure this will be the real deal,” Gazelka said. “They tend to do a reasonable job.”

Wenzel said an appeal of the judicially determined redistricting panel’s decision is unlikely.

“It can be appealed but appeals are never successful unless they determine there is a problem disrespecting minorities or the computations of districts.”

Wenzel said an appeal of the judicially determined redistricting panel’s decision is unlikely.

“It can be appealed but appeals are never successful unless they determine there is a problem disrespecting minorities or the computations of districts (their population numbers) are not equal.”

Congressional districts must be within zero to nine people of each other, Wenzel said, a feat the panel is able to accomplish thanks to computers and census reports. Legislative districts must be within 1.5 percent deviation.

“They’re able to do that.” Wenzel said. “They know the exact count through the census.”

Redistricting is a significant political event, Wenzel said, recalling how during his tenure in the House the speaker lost the attention of lawmakers when the redistricting maps were posted in the back of the chamber.

“This is inside baseball to some people but it really is very big news for the people of Minnesota,” Wenzel said.

MIKE O’ROURKE may be reached at 855-5860 or mike.orourke@brainerddispatch.com.

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Mike O'Rourke
Mike O'Rourke began his career at the Brainerd Dispatch in 1978 as a general assignment reporter. He was named city editor in 1981 and associate editor in 1999. He covers politics and writes features and editorials.
(218) 855-5860
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