NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk has been victimized for two decades, “chopped up left and right” in violation of the Connecticut Constitution, according to former Mayor Alex Knopp.
In 1974, Norwalk was represented in the State House by four legislators, all of whom lived in Norwalk and represented only parts of Norwalk, he said. “Now we have five, only two of them have all Norwalk districts, and three of them have districts that don’t work as either a minority part or, as I say sometimes, the Republican tail trying to wag the Democratic Norwalk dog.”
Knopp, a speaker at a recent League of Women Voters forum on redistricting and gerrymandering, focused on the town integrity principle. Sujata Gadkar-Wilcox explained what redistricting is and why it’s coming up next year – in connection to the Census – and Alaa Chaker decried prison gerrymandering.
“Why does redistricting matter to you? Because new districts can either help build communities or they can dilute collective voices. A fair districting process ensures that every person has a vote, in other words, a voice in government. And that vote counts equally for everyone throughout the state and throughout the country,” said Gadkar-Wilcox, Associate Professor of Legal Studies at Quinnipiac University, during the event held a Norwalk High School.
The Census will be followed by apportionment, meaning at a national level, that the House of Representatives will be reviewed. The number of House seats was capped at 435 in 1929 so it’s not just a matter of population resulting in a Congressional seat, but rather the total number of American citizens is divided and the House seats apportioned in a corresponding manner.
In 1828, a Congressman represented about 26,000 people but now it’s about 700,000, she said.
And, a State’s representation in the electoral college is equal to the number of Representatives and Senators it send to Washington.
So, yes, the Census is important. Redistricting follows the Census and is guided by its results.
Chaker, a third year Yale Law School student, explained another wrinkle in Connecticut: the state “counts incarcerated individuals as residents of the correctional institutions where they are held rather than at their home districts.” That artificially inflates the representation of northern rural areas that prisons have been constructed in as part of “the era of mass incarceration” and deflates the communities the prisoners come from, in effect giving more power to those majority white areas and taking power from minority communities, she explained.
Knopp said that a Supreme Court decision last year means “essentially that legislators pick their voters, rather than voters picking their legislators is now unfortunately the law of the land.”
The Court “determined that redistricting cases about political gerrymandering were no longer to be brought into federal court,” he said. “…The importance of that decision was to shift a lot of the attention of pro-democracy activists to the state level because that decision only locked the federal courthouse door, it did not lock the doors of either state courts or state legislatures, whereas Sujata told you much of the redistricting process takes place.”
The State Constitution’s town integrity principle “means that towns and cities as government entities need to have a unified voice at the Capitol to be effective to deal with their issues,” Knopp explained.
He presented these statistics:
- 1971 reapportionment: 47 of 151 Districts crossed town lines
- 1981 reapportionment: 54 of 151 Districts crossed town lines
- 1991 reapportionment: 65 of 151 Districts crossed town lines
That’s a 38 percent increase in town integrity principle violations but a legal appeal to the Connecticut Supreme Court failed, he said.
“There was a lot of procedural gobbledygook and stuff that kind of got in the way of it but the end result was to sort of take away any legal obstacles to the redistricting effort in the state legislature to cut town lines in order to protect incumbents,” Knopp explained.
He continued, “Now, in many states, there’s a very harsh gerrymandering that deals with favoring one party or another. The Connecticut experience with gerrymandering, at least in the last 20 to 30 years is that it tends to be incumbents favoring incumbency, rather than a more partisan, one party over another.”
What is now called the 137th District is a really good example, according to Knopp. Back in 1974, it was the 139th District and it was comprised of East Norwalk and Central Norwalk. Voter turnout patterns meant that in a Presidential election a Republican would win and in a gubernatorial election, a Democrat would win. So, through 1980, it flip-flopped.
“As part of the partisan gerrymandering that started to go out in Connecticut, and build up a lot of seats, the town integrity principle was violated,” Knopp said. “When the legislator redistricting team took a look at Norwalk and decided instead of flipping the seat every two years, what could they do to make a big permanent Republican seat.”
In 1981, 20 percent of Westport was added to the 139th, he said, and “the Westport Republican tail was wagging the Norwalk Democratic dog” until 1986, when “something interesting happened.”
A new generation of candidates was running in that gubernatorial year and the Democrat grew up in Westport and beat the Republican, according to Knopp. The Democrat won again two years later.
“That didn’t sit very well with the people who wanted to make it a safe Republican seat,” he said. “So in the 1991 redistricting, all the sudden, Westport was taken it out of the district. … And that’s the seat today that Bob Duff held when he first ran Now Chris Perone alludes, gets a completely Norwalk seat.”
“When you have an urban and suburban binary system, that you chop off part of the suburban town to put in with the Democratic city… the result is often you dilute the vote of the city, because now there’s a legislator who has to be responsive to suburban concerns, which may be very different,” Knopp said.
The most recent redistricting
Then-State Rep. Larry Cafero served as chairman of the last redistricting committee. Cafero said in 2011 that most of the population shift in the previous decade was centered in the Northeast corner of the state, and the redistricting by necessity would start there. This would squeeze numbers down this way and present challenges due to the constrained geography of Fairfield County.
“Take the politics out of it, just the mapping and the technology you use, the census blocks, etc., it’s just fascinating. It’s like being a puzzle maker or something. It’s really been quite an education for me,” he said, as the process was in its early stages.
As the process came to a conclusion, he was quoted as saying “Not everybody got what they wanted.”
“Republicans like Cafero complained the 2001 map, which cut one congressional seat, was a concession to protect two incumbent members of Congress. They said their proposal would have undone Democrats’ ‘gerrymandering,’” Westport News reported.
“We’ll be starting this process next year after the Census is done,” Knopp said. “And by the state law and process, there are public hearings mandated in every Congressional district about the goals of the next apportionment and redistricting plan. So I hope that the League will join with others to organize efforts to bring to the attention of people this idea of the town integrity principle. My guess is probably not many of you have ever heard of it before. It’s a an important when almost obscure provision of the state constitution.”
He urged, “Just think of two issues that have been raised in Norwalk recently, one, for example, the enormous growth of ELL (English Language Learner) students, but many coming from places like Puerto Rico because of the earthquake, and hurricanes. State funding is determined by the General Assembly. And often it’s a zero-sum game in which limited funds have to get distributed amongst the municipalities, many of which have different needs. Can you imagine the sort of difficulty of having to vote if you’re a suburban legislator representing part of Norwalk?”
Then there are affordable housing issues, where Westport has very different goals than Norwalk, he said. He also predicted that there would be an attempt to change the lines of the 142nd District to ensure that it return to its status as a certain Republican seat, given that Lucy Dathan, a Democrat, took it in 2018 from Republican State Rep. Fred Wilms, who is seeking his seat back.
Former Mayoral candidate Lisa Brinton asked Knopp is Norwalk would fare better with State education funding if it had “had more dedicated representation” in the Statehouse.
“The problem generally is that the Connecticut General Assembly is dominated by suburban and rural interests,” Knopp replied. “Urban legislators are a minority in the General Assembly. … So as a statewide matter of political trends, I think getting adequate funding for urban education is hurt by the fact that suburban and rural legislators dominate the General Assembly.”