Cathleen Allison / Associated Press
Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011 | 2 a.m.
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Democrats unveiled yet another proposal for redrawing the state’s congressional districts Monday without mentioning any candidates by name. But reading between the lines it appears the party hopes to create districts that would protect the party’s strongest candidates — Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas; Ruben Kihuen, D-Las Vegas, and Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas.
Seemingly overlooked in the Democrats’ proposal: former Rep. Dina Titus, who would likely face a primary in her bid to return to Congress under the redistricting plan.
Arguing before three court masters, attorneys for the state Democratic Party said the proposal — described as “conceptual” — would more fairly apportion Nevadans according to population rules.
But the new maps also play directly to the strengths of some of the top Democrats running for Congress next year, potentially organizing the overcrowded field.
Monday’s hearing was the first of two public hearings held by the court masters before they submit maps for Nevada’s new political districts to Carson City District Judge James Russell later this month.
Under the new proposal Nevada’s new 4th Congressional District would combine the Hispanic-heavy urban core of Las Vegas with the state’s southernmost rural counties — a district that likely would favor Kihuen, who, if elected, would be Nevada’s first Hispanic in Congress.
In previous maps, Democrats proposed making the 3rd Congressional District the so-called “hybrid district” that would combine parts of Las Vegas with the rural counties.
Democrats say the new proposal would respect CD3’s tradition of being a Clark County-only district. But it would also tilt the seat now held by U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., more Democratic, which would favor Oceguera’s candidacy.
The 1st Congressional District would include many of the black neighborhoods that would form Horsford’s base. Under the new proposal, U.S. Sen. John Lee, D-North Las Vegas, could face a primary against Horsford, who hasn’t yet made his expected bid for Congress official, instead of Oceguera.
The only wild card in the Democrats’ efforts to organize the field is Titus, who has yet to signal which district she wants. She has proved a formidable primary candidate and would likely face Horsford or Kihuen. It’s unlikely she would run against Heck, who defeated her last year in CD3.
Republicans continued their push for the new districts to give Hispanic voters a majority in at least one congressional district, four state Senate districts and eight Assembly districts.
None of the districts proposed by the Democrats would be majority Hispanic.
“It’s impossible to satisfy this requirement,” said Stephen Ansolabehere, a government professor at Harvard University brought in by Democrats as an expert witness. “This is a mathematical fact that can’t be disputed. You simply cannot connect all the communities of Hispanics in which a majority of the eligible electorate are Hispanics. It’s not possible to do.”
Democrats argue districts must be drawn based on voting-age citizen population rather than total population. Republicans disagree, arguing it’s too cumbersome to determine the citizen voting-age population.
Republicans base their majority Hispanic districts on total population.
Under the Voting Rights Act, lawmakers must prove, among other things, that whites vote as a bloc to the disadvantage of a minority group before using race as a factor to draw lines.
The two sides disagree on whether white voters act as a bloc to oppose Hispanic candidates. Democrats point to the election of multiple Latinos in the Legislature and exit polling data showing white voters split their vote in the last election.
“There is no pattern of systematic white cohesive voting as a bloc to oppose the Hispanic-preferred candidates,” Ansolabehere said. “In fact, the whites are as evenly split as in any state I’ve ever seen.”
Republicans, however, brought in an expert who said data show racially polarized voting in which white voters work against Hispanic candidates.
Thomas Brunell, a political-science professor at the University of Texas, Dallas, used a majority Hispanic precinct, a school board race and a city council race to argue whites vote as a racially polarized block.
“It’s not omnipresent, but does it does exist in Nevada voting,” Brunell said. “Absolutely it does and you have to be aware of it.”
In the precinct example, the Hispanic candidate still won the election. In the city council race, the candidate with the Hispanic surname lost, but Bob Coffin, who is ethnically Hispanic won.
The fight over minority representation has largely become a proxy battle as the political parties aim for their more fundamental goal of controlling the district maps. On the congressional level, Democrats want three of the four districts. Republicans want the split to be two and two.
If Republicans succeed in persuading the court to draw majority Hispanic districts, they succeed in concentrating a significant population of Democratic voters in a small number of districts.
On the other hand, Democrats win more political influence by disbursing Hispanic voters across many districts.
The proxy battle has some minority activists crying foul.
“They are using us,” said Fernando Romero, of the nonpartisan Hispanics in Politics. “Both parties are using the Hispanic community. Republicans need to own up to the fact that they are the minority in Southern Nevada. “To a very small degree I concur with Democrats in that we need Hispanics in other districts, but not to the degree that they want.”