Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

As the circular firing squad otherwise known as the GOP presidential primary takes it toll, the Kentucky House leadership went nuclear on lesser known politicians of the minority party when they unveiled the new district map last Thursday. Eight Republicans and one Democrat were put into the same districts and will face off in their respective primaries. That means that five Republican incumbents will be ousted, all before a single vote in the general election.  

House Speaker Greg Stumbo (D-Prestonsburg) told the Lexington Herald-Leader that the new district lines are based on population changes and not politics. Right. And the Speaker is also offering for sale a Bridge to Nowhere, which metaphorically is where this kind of politics leads. When several districts are comprised of oddly drawn lines that eliminate so many incumbents of the opposition party, even the politically uninitiated can see the goal is to protect political fiefdoms over the best interests of the citizenry. Note to uninitiated: it’s called gerrymandering and is used to protect incumbents and benefit the party in power.

The Kentucky Constitution requires the legislature to reassess districts every 10 years and to redraw the lines to ensure each are proportional in population.  The House plan passed this test with flying colors. Unfortunately it failed on the “do not carve up counties like a Thanksgiving Turkey” part. The constitution requires districts to remain contiguous and counties to be kept intact as best as possible. The current Democrat plan divides six additional counties while the Republican alternative only splits two; albeit under heavy criticism that it disadvantaged inner-city minorities and a possible violation of federal law.

Practically speaking, the newly devised districts hurt places like Christian County, which has traditionally had two State Representatives. It may end up with only one since Muhlenberg County Rep. Brent Yonts (D-Greenville) will represent nearly one-third of northeast Christian County. Hopkins County Rep. Ben Waide (R-Madisonville) was placed in the same district as Rep. Myron Dossett (R-Pembroke) and if Waide wins in the May primary that leaves John Tilley (D-Hopkinsville) as the lone representative from Christian. Good for the State Democratic party, not so much for the Christian County electorate.

The new map is expected to pass since a long-standing agreement between the House and Senate has allowed each chamber to determine their own legislative districts. Expect the Republican controlled Senate to go nuclear when they release their map this week. Leave it to hyper-partisans to resurrect the old Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction.  This kind of political bomb-throwing is largely responsible for turning people off to government involvement and most recently evidenced by the 28 percent voter turnout in last November’s gubernatorial election.

The new districts certainly won’t garner any love between constituents and the powers that be in Frankfort.  In fact, there will likely be a lawsuit over the redrawn districts. Rep. Joe Fischer (R-Fort Thomas) successfully challenged the 1991 redistricting plan because it nearly doubled the number of counties that were needed to be split. The State Supreme Court then ruled that the state Constitution requires redistricting to “divide the fewest possible number of counties.”  

Politicians running for office promise to do what’s best for the people but somewhere between Main Street Kentucky and Frankfort too many politicians begin to ask, “What’s best for my party?”  It should be incumbent upon the incumbents to realize they have a duty to keep communities together; to protect geographical integrity; and to ensure compactness of districts. The people back home depend on their legislators to put their communities above party loyalty.  Mutually Assured Destruction shouldn’t be an option in politics. And hiding out in fallout shelters under the banner of apathy and cynicism shouldn’t be an escape hatch for citizens either. But voters still have veto authority over what their representatives do. Maybe they’ll exercise it at the ballot box this November.

 *This op-ed first appeared in the Kentucky New Era.