Monday, August 31, 2009

Census May Split Sarpy Voters More

Published Aug 31, 2009
Published Monday August 31, 2009

By Jeffrey Robb

Sarpy County could be at the center of a political tug-of-war when the Legislature looks to draw Nebraska's new congressional boundaries.

The redrawn districts will be one of the major consequences of next year's U.S. Census population count.

And population trends point to the likelihood that an even larger portion of Sarpy County — perhaps one of its three largest cities — will join the Lincoln-based 1st District to help balance the size of Nebraska's three congressional districts.

Given President Barack Obama's electoral college victory in metro Omaha's 2nd District, the political stakes have been raised for how the boundary lines are drawn.

The good news for Nebraska is that the state most likely will hold on to all three U.S. House seats. Iowa, on the other hand, could lose one of its five seats.

After the 2010 population count is done, both states will take up redistricting in 2011.

Lawmakers will have a number of options for redrawing Nebraska's congressional districts. Each is projected to include about 600,000 residents.

In the Omaha area, this much is clear: Douglas and Sarpy Counties combined already have 58,000 too many people — based on U.S. Census estimates — to fit together in a single, redrawn district.

And if Douglas County stays intact in redistricting, as many expect, that means even more of Sarpy County will wind up in the 1st District.

For the Omaha area's resurgent Democrats, redistricting offers an opportunity to increase their voting strength by shedding Sarpy County Republicans.

Loree Bykerk, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said Republicans will be looking closely at how to balance the 2nd District population without losing many of their voters.

Papillion is one community that could be key. It has enough people to help make the numbers work, sits on the 2nd District boundary and already gives up a sliver of land to the 1st District. Papillion has an estimated 23,739 people in the city limits, with thousands more in neighborhoods just outside the city.

Papillion also is more Republican than neighboring La Vista, which has 16,643 people in the city and another sizable population just outside it.

So moving Papillion into the 1st District could prove more appealing to Omaha-area Democrats looking ahead to the 2012 elections, while moving La Vista would do more to help Republicans.

“This is going to be interesting,” Bykerk said.

In 2001, the Legislature moved Gretna, Springfield and Chalco into the 1st District to balance the population numbers.

That debate centered on how to keep different communities within Sarpy County in one district. At one time, for instance, Offutt Air Force Base was to be separated from Bellevue.

This time, the Legislature may have to take more than western and southern Sarpy County, which today have roughly 30,000 people in the 1st District.

Lawmakers have a variety of options besides moving Papillion or La Vista. If Bellevue went into the 1st District, for instance, the rest of Sarpy County might be able to stay with Douglas County.

None of the options is particularly appealing to Sarpy County leaders, whose communities are in many ways interrelated.

La Vista Mayor Doug Kindig said he wants his city to stay in a metro-area Omaha district and wouldn't want any more neighboring cities moved. “I'd hate to see us split up,” he said.

If any of those cities go, the Papillion-La Vista School District would be substantially split, as well. The district's two newest schools already are in the 1st District.

But spokeswoman Annette Eyman said the school district sees having two congressional representatives as positive.

“If they divided our district and we have more individuals to work with, we'll work with them,” she said.

Ken Ragland, chairman of the Sarpy County Republican Party, said he is concerned that losing a large section of Sarpy County to the 1st District would hurt the local GOP.

Mike Leahy, chairman of the Douglas County Democratic Party, said his party isn't looking forward to any territory leaving the 2nd District. He said Democrats want to gain support by appealing to more Sarpy County voters.

“We're interested in breaking new ground, not losing ground,” he said.

The Omaha-area shifts are just one redistricting issue facing the state.

Population declines in western and central Nebraska mean that 3rd District boundaries are likely to spread even farther east, spurring debate about whether to move Madison County and Norfolk out of the 1st District. Madison County currently is the westernmost county in the 1st District and a Republican stronghold.

Mike Flood of Norfolk, speaker of the Legislature, said he has yet to hear lawmakers discuss how they might redraw the congressional districts.

“I know this is important work,” Flood said, “and I know this has an impact on a lot of different issues and elections. Obviously we want to do a good job.”

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