U.S. Capitol
The U.S. Capitol Credit: Orhan Cam / Shutterstock

As Connecticut’s bipartisan redistricting panel missed a court-extended deadline Tuesday members from both parties said the outside pressure of national politics had complicated their efforts to adjust the lines of the state’s five congressional districts. 

Having approved new maps for General Assembly districts despite months-long delays in the release of population data, the nine-member Reapportionment Commission asked the state Supreme Court to give members until Tuesday to negotiate the lines of new congressional districts. 

But by the midday deadline, it was clear the group of Democrats and Republicans had not reached a consensus and the court would begin the process of appointing a mediator, called a special master, to oversee the drafting of a new map. 

Still, members of both parties characterized the negotiations as reasonable with only minor or technical differences separating their proposals. 

In an interview Tuesday, House Speaker Matt Ritter said national pressures, brought by “people who have an interest in congressional maps across the country,” had made agreement on the congressional lines more difficult than negotiating state legislative districts. 

“There’s a lot more outside input and pressures that get brought to bear and it makes it harder for the decision makers at that point on both sides,” Ritter said. “What you might consider for a state rep seat to be very minor, apparently is not very minor in a congressional race.”

Ritter attributed the additional scrutiny to the “raw emotion” of national politics, which he said he understood. Although the decision had rested with the commission, he said none of its members wanted the stigma of approving a controversial map, especially given the nature of D.C. politics. 

“I mean, nobody wants that wrath. I’m being very blunt. If Congress comes down to one vote, people are looking closely at these seats on both sides,” Ritter said. “The emotional nature of this, the intensity, the toxicity of Washington D.C., I believe it has made it really hard for us to do our jobs here and it’s not for lack of effort.”

House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora also pointed to outside influences when the group missed its noon deadline. He said the pressure largely stemmed from national Democrats worried about losing ground in Congress during next year’s midterm elections. 

“There are a lot of headwinds for the Democratic party nationally. We have two congressional seats here in Connecticut that have been put on the target list. That obviously impacts the decision-making locally. Nobody wants to have their hands on the murder weapon,” Candelora said. 

While the stakes are high, the commission seemed to be debating only modest changes to the congressional map. Both Ritter and Candelora said members of the commission were relatively close in their proposals. 

A map proposal shared by state Republican chair Ben Proto with Hearst Connecticut Media would have eliminated the claw-shaped boundary between the 1st and 5th Districts and boosted Republicans’ chances of capturing the 5th District, currently held by U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes. 

However, Candelora said Republicans on the Reapportionment Commission had proposed nothing so drastic and had favored a more incremental approach to eliminating the ungainly shape at the center of the state. 

As the Supreme Court prepares to steer the process going forward, Ritter said the relatively modest differences between the two parties may make the court’s task more difficult. The same process played out 10 years ago, when that commission reached an impasse on congressional maps. At that time, Ritter said Republicans on the commission were proposing changes to the maps that were “quite frankly ludicrous” and were non-starters for the court. 

This time around, the court will be asked to weigh in on technical and minor disagreements, he said. 

“We’re making it even more difficult for the court potentially,” Ritter said. “It’s unfortunate for the court they’re going to have to dig into this starting today because it’s going to be a difficult job for them too and one I’m sure they don’t want to do.”

Since it became involved in the process at the end of November, the court has asked the commission to make recommendations on candidates to serve as a special master. The panel has been reluctant to do so, hoping it would be unnecessary. Now that a court-ordered overseer is inevitable, the group told the court it was unable to agree on three names to submit collectively. The two parties plan to make proposals separately through their lawyers. 

Last week, Senate President Martin Looney said constitutional law professor Nathaniel Persily would be among those favored by Democrats. Persily served as the special master during the 2011 redistricting process. 

“There are a limited number of people who are experts in this field, nationwide. It’s a fairly small group of specialists,” Looney said.

On Tuesday, Candelora said he hoped to see two special masters appointed, one to serve the interests of each party. 

“Otherwise, this continued ‘Let’s use the Democrats’ special master,’ the Supreme Court is setting themselves up to get the map every 10 years,” Candelora said. “There will never be an agreement because the Democrats’ wishes are always met. They get to pick the special master and they get to pick the standard the special master follows. There’s no incentive for bonafide, good faith negotiations in the future.”