Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010 | 2 a.m.
Nevada’s strong growth earns it a new congressional district. Now the Legislature — with the governor’s final signature — must determine how the four seats will be drawn, which will likely spur political gamesmanship.
And now, time to divvy up the spoils.
Nevada has won a fourth seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where allotment of the 435 seats changes after the census every 10 years depending on a state’s population gain or loss.
The announcement came Tuesday from the Census Bureau, which pegged Nevada’s population at 2.7 million, up 35 percent from 2000. Each congressional district will have roughly 677,000 Nevadans.
Beside determining how the state’s four congressional seats will be drawn, the Nevada Legislature — with Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval’s final signature — will also redraw state legislative maps to reflect population changes, with Southern Nevada likely winning more seats in Carson City.
This is a complex chess game, with an array of diverse interests fighting over who gets what:
• Northern Nevada trying to preserve its shrinking influence;
• Democrats trying to draw a map that will result in three Democrats to just one Republican in Congress;
• Incumbent members of Congress, including newly elected GOP Rep. Joe Heck, trying to jam their districts with members of their own party;
• Ambitious state legislators, including Assembly Speaker John Oceguera and Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, angling for their next jobs — possibly congressional runs;
• Outgoing Rep. Dina Titus, looking to return to Congress in 2012;
• From Washington, the long reach of the parties’ congressional campaign arms, as well as the White House and Sen. Harry Reid watching the whole melee, giving meaningful winks and nods.
Given Nevada’s massive budget deficit of at least $2 billion, which will require either tax increases, spending cuts or both, some have speculated on potential deals to be made, with legislators negotiating to solve both the budget crisis and redistricting, using chits on one to trade for chits on the other.
But Dale Erquiaga, a senior adviser to Republican Sandoval, told the Sun on Tuesday that the governor wants the Legislature to avoid that kind of horse trading by finishing redistricting quickly — and first.
Erquiaga said post-census horse trading “is not a good way to conduct the people’s business.”
Horsford indicated that although some Republicans in the Legislature would like to use redistricting as a bargaining chip in the budget negotiations, he will refuse to couple the two.
The budget, Horsford said, “directly affects people. Redistricting is a political process the average voter couldn’t care less about. The process should be fair and reflect the state’s population and the diversity of our state, but it should not be tied to budget decisions.”
In this, Horsford is sending a stern message to state Sen. Bill Raggio, longtime Republican leader from Reno. Although he was deposed as leader last month, Raggio is still considered a key player on budget issues because any tax increase will require three Republican votes — votes he could help deliver — to override an expected veto from Sandoval.
Raggio has long been Northern Nevada’s strongest advocate. Raggio and other northerners, including Democratic Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, want to expand the Legislature, which would dilute the south’s recent gains. Horsford said he wants to “end the inequities” that have dealt the south less representation over the years despite its larger population. (About 70 percent of Nevadans live in the south.) If these problems seem insoluble, that’s because they probably are.
Many observers have said redistricting will likely be decided by the courts because of expected vetoes by Sandoval and litigation from parties who feel they’ve been wronged by the new maps.
Amid all the arcane maneuvering, there’s bound to be personal dramas and clashing ambitions.
Both Horsford and Oceguera said they are focused on the problems at hand — the state’s budget crisis, flagging economy, continued foreclosure wave and struggling schools.
In comments to the Sun, Titus, a former state senator, was quite open about her ambition to return to Congress in 2012.
“It will be a Democratic seat, a southern seat and will include part of what I represented, so I will definitely be looking at it,” she said.
Titus said she won’t officially announce her intentions until district lines are drawn.
The Georgia native is a known quantity and an experienced candidate with a fundraising network and a crew of dedicated volunteers and political talent.
In 2006, she easily beat Henderson’s then-Mayor James Gibson in a Democratic primary despite not having establishment backing.
Aside from Horsford and Oceguera, state Sen. John Lee has expressed interest in the seat. Failed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rory Reid would also be a formidable candidate.
Much would depend, of course, on how the district is drawn, and who lives in it. (A candidate doesn’t have to live in a district to represent it.)
A Democratic operative said Titus should not be presumed to be the front-runner, questioning whether donors and operatives would support a candidate who was just defeated. Also, now that she’s out of office, Titus has little leverage in the Legislature or in Washington.
A potential wild-card: If Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley decides to challenge Sen. John Ensign or a Republican who beats Ensign in a primary, that would open up the heavily Democratic 1st Congressional seat, which could relieve some of the intraparty squabbling because they’d be fighting over two seats rather than one. Which in turn would allow Nevada Democrats — as is their favorite pastime — to fight about something else.