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State Senate hears public comment on its redistricting plan

DOVER – While the State Senate won some praise for its handling of the legislative redistricting process, others speaking at a public forum on new district maps say they would weaken the strength of minorities in the Wilmington area.

The 21 Senate district boundaries are being redrawn to conform with the 2010 US Census.  A new 6th district would be created in Sussex County to accommodate its growing population.  Two Senate incumbents would be moved into the redrawn 8th district in New Castle County:  Liane Sorenson (R-Hockessin) and David Sokola (D-Newark).

The move would be “politically neutral,” according to Senate attorney Frank Murphy.

The hearing held Thursday at Legislative Hall in Dover drew fewer than two dozen people.  A handful of them took the opportunity to speak.

Some of them did not hold back.

“You are destroying communities with these maps.  You should be ashamed of yourselves,” said Progressive Democrats for Delaware President Paul Baumbach of Newark.  Progressive Democrats for Delaware developed out of a group that supported Howard Dean for president seven years ago.

Baumbach highlighted what he sees as a series of neighborhoods placed in the wrong districts and took issue with the shapes of other districts.

Murphy said the Senate was bound by federal guidelines and had to work with Census blocks that were used to count the population.  He added that in some cases entire neighborhoods could not be placed in the same district and that lines could appear to be irregular.

Public Comment on Senate redistricting proposal

Frank Murphy, attorney for the Delaware State Senate, discusses how they arrived at their maps for Wilmington area districts.

Progressive Democrats for Delaware president Paul Baumbach highlights his concerns and objections to the Senate redistricting proposal.

Delaware Republican Party Chairman John Sigler questioned whether the population numbers could support maintaining three Senate districts that include the City of Wilmington.   Meanwhile, Richard Smith of the Delaware NAACP said the redrawn Wilmington area districts contain smaller percentages of African-Americans.

“It’s hard to build up power,” Smith said.

“We’re happy to sit down and speak with the leadership of the NAACP and see if we can address any concerns they have,” Murphy said.  “I do believe this plan is the maximum that could be done.”

Murphy said the redrawn 2nd district would have a non-white population of 75%, while the new 3rd district would be 65% non-white, with a Hispanic concentration of 21%.

Without commenting on the redrawn districts or their boundaries, Delaware Coalition for Open Government President John Flaherty offered praise to Senate leaders for how it carried out the process.

“It’s like night and day from ten years ago,” Flaherty said.  After the 2000 Census, there were no public hearings and the process dragged on for over a year until the threat of court action finally resulted in new district boundaries.

Murphy said anyone with concerns or proposals about the redistricting process may still submit them to the Senate.

The Senate hearing came one week after the hearing hosted by the House Democratic leadership on its redistricting proposal, which would move the 11th and 20th districts to central and southern Delaware to accommodate population growth.  Following that hearing, House Majority Leader Pete Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth Beach) said “I was a little surprised that there weren’t more people here speaking, with concerns about the district they live in or anything of that nature.”

“I remember the last time this was done, people were all upset about everything,” Schwartzkopf said.

As the process moves forward, House and Senate maps will be drawn into one bill to be voted on in each house by June 30th.

The League of Women Voters of Delaware, meanwhile, sees this as an ideal time to address another question:  should this important responsibility be left to whichever political party is in power?

“We strongly believe that the state should be using an independent commission,” says John Sykes, who advocates for the League of Women Voters of Delaware.  Sykes says while legislative leaders would not admit to it, it is possible to draw the lines of legislative districts to cut or include communities that fit their interests.

Sykes also says proposed maps were available on the state website May 19th – “not a whole lot of time for people to sit down and analyze.”