New York Times finds a non-gerrymandered district – expresses incredulity

NY Times 5 August 2006 / Campaign 2006

Leveled Colorado District Creates an Election Lab

By CARL HULSE    DENVER, Aug. 2 – The remarkable thing about Colorado's Seventh Congressional District, where Republicans hold a seat that Democrats are desperate to win this year, is that the fix isn't in.

Unlike the vast majority of House districts around the country, this one, encompassing a thriving collection of Denver suburbs, was not gerrymandered to guarantee victory to one party. Quite the opposite. It is a freak of modern political nature, purposefully drawn to be balanced between the parties and provide a genuine test of the ideals and abilities of the opposing candidates.

"It is a political scientist's dream," said Representative Diana DeGette, a Democrat who represents an adjoining district.

Now, with control of Congress at stake, the decision by Representative Bob Beauprez to vacate the seat after two terms to run for governor has created one of the most important Congressional races in the nation, a laboratory for Republicans and Democrats alike and a bellwether in a fluid political year. Both parties are making the contest a priority as Republicans try to hold on against determined Democrats, who will choose their candidate in a primary next Tuesday and sorely need the seat to recapture the House.

The candidates are already fighting over the Iraq war, immigration, stem cell research and political corruption, suggesting that the outcome could be settled by how a textbook swing district comes down on the driving questions of the day.

"It really is like America, right down the middle, just like you read about in civics class," said Peggy Lamm, one of the three Democratic primary contenders, as she headed out on a scorching day to knock on doors. "That's what I love about it."

Under boundaries imposed by a Denver judge in 2002, the Seventh District is almost perfectly divided among independents, Democrats and Republicans, each sharing a third of the district, which nearly surrounds Denver. It is a mix of old suburbs and new exurbs that are home to a potent demographic stew, with slightly more women than men, stirred by a healthy mix of Hispanics and other minorities who make up almost a quarter of the district.

The mainly middle-class residents commute to downtown offices and stores or work at nearby federal medical and energy research centers and military installations. Many are retired. Others labor at the oil refineries and warehouses that dominate industrial Commerce City at one end of the district and the Coors brewery that is synonymous with the city of Golden at the other.

It is a district where voters twice sent Mr. Beauprez, a Republican, to the House – the first time by 121 votes – but backed John Kerry for president. Voters elected a Democratic senator and a Republican governor, demonstrating a willingness to look beyond party labels when making decisions at the ballot box.

"This really is a district that could only have come out of a court, not a political process," said Bob Loevy, a political science professor and analyst at Colorado College.

In the Democratic race to take on the Republican candidate, Rick O'Donnell, Ms. Lamm, a former state legislator, is facing off against Ed Perlmutter, a former State Senate leader with deep roots in the district and strong party establishment backing, as evidenced by his endorsement this week by Representative Mark Udall. A third candidate, Herb Rubenstein, a recently transplanted Washington lawyer and businessman, is a long shot who has made opposition to the war in Iraq a centerpiece of his campaign.

Mr. Perlmutter and Ms. Lamm, two seasoned politicians, have waged tough campaigns against one another through television advertisements and mailings. Ms. Lamm this week hit Mr. Perlmutter for a 2001 legislative vote against eliminating the statute of limitations on sex crimes; Mr. Perlmutter, the father of three girls, said the law was unconstitutional. He likes to remind voters that Ms. Lamm was a lobbyist and that she is not the wife of Richard Lamm, the popular former governor, but was married to his brother before a divorce.

The three Democratic candidates do agree on one thing: they say voters in the district are fed up with the Bush administration and Republican governance. "Simply put, people have had enough and they want a change," Mr. Perlmutter said. "Moderate Republicans, unaffiliated voters and Democrats are wanting to see some checks and balances back in Congress."

No matter who wins the primary, the general election promises to offer a clear choice between Democratic and Republican ideology, pitting the primary victor against Mr. O'Donnell, the state higher education commissioner who has welcomed President Bush and a string of administration stars to the state for help in raising money.

Mr. O'Donnell, who has been quietly biding his time and building his bank account while the Democrats compete, said he knew his eventual opponent would try to link him to the Bush White House so he figured he might as well reap the financial rewards of his association. "I was honored to have President Bush come in and give me the upside," said Mr. O'Donnell, a native of the district who lost a primary to Mr. Beauprez in 2002.

Mr. O'Donnell notes that he has split with Mr. Bush and taken a harder line on immigration, which he sees as the top issue in the race. But Democrats say some of the passion has gone out of that topic with the passage of new immigration laws by the state legislature and a failed effort to put an immigration initiative on the November ballot.

And while he generally backs the current Republican agenda, Mr. O'Donnell said he considers himself more progressive on matters like education and health care policy, which he thinks will play to the district's center.

His potential Democratic opponents are not buying it. And they plan to make hay out of a policy paper Mr. O'Donnell wrote 11 years ago advocating the elimination of Social Security, a view that internal Democratic polls show is deadly when brought to the attention of voters. Mr. O'Donnell attributes the paper to youthful exuberance and says he has since changed his mind.

"As my pollster said, Why couldn't I have smoked pot when I was 24?" said Mr. O'Donnell, a former aide to Gov. Bill Owens. "Instead, I had to write about Social Security."

Mr. O'Donnell acknowledged that residents who press him on the war tend to be frustrated by events in Iraq, but his position is that pulling out troops too quickly would risk leaving a "failed state in the Middle East." That view puts him at sharp odds with the Democrats, all of whom have called for troop withdrawals in their campaign advertising.

On another national topic that could play a role in the race, Mr. Perlmutter's first television commercial focused on embryonic stem cell research, tying it to the potential benefits for a daughter who has epilepsy. All three Democrats participated in a Denver rally for federal stem cell research after Mr. Bush's veto of a bill to expand federally financed research, which he issued two days before appearing in Denver for Mr. O'Donnell. Mr. O'Donnell plays down the potential impact of the issue and sides with the president, saying he does not want federal money to provide an incentive to destroy human embryos, though he supports private research.

As the race heads to November, candidates of both parties will have to reach beyond their political base and find support in the middle, since 123,000 voters in the district do not claim allegiance to either party. They total slightly more than Democrats who, at 119,000, have pulled slightly ahead of Republicans, at 113,000. But in political terms, the groups are effectively equal, setting up a true horse race, which was evidently what Judge John W. Coughlin had in mind in 2002 when he approved the present boundaries after a politically drawn map was tossed out.

"The court has concluded that the new district would benefit from what should be a competitive race," Judge Coughlin wrote in his decision. "The foreseen closeness of the race will hopefully generate much interest of the voters."

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