Commentary: Redistricting on the horizon

The spring of 2002 saw one of the more contentious attempts at redistricting in Oklahoma's history. With a Republican governor and a Democrat Legislature, it took an Oklahoma County district judge to decide which of the various redistricting plans would become the law of the state for the next 10 years. 

As a campaign staff member for a sitting congressman at the time, I remember the uncertainty that the protracted litigation created, as well as the various conspiracy theories concocted as to the basis for the various proposed district lines. Folks were certain that the success or failure of their political futures were being determined in a small room with a computer in the basement of the state Capitol. It was a moment in our state's political history that I'm sure we'll never revisit.

Or could we?

The political landscape has changed significantly in Oklahoma since 2002 (possibly because of that computer in the basement of the Capitol). We now have a Republican-controlled House and Senate, which doesn't look to be changing hands any time soon. We have a Democrat governor at this point, but that may very well change come November 2010.

So if a Republican is elected as the state's 27th governor, and both chambers of the Legislature remain under safe Republican control, shouldn't redistricting go off without a hitch come 2012? The answer to that question may hinge on a quiet decision made recently by the Republican Caucus of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. 

In early August, Rep. Ken Miller, R-Edmond, withdrew his name from consideration to be the next Oklahoma House speaker. Miller endorsed Rep. Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, who had also placed his name in the ring for the Speaker position. I believe that Miller withdrew his name after much of the rural legislative caucus had thrown its support behind Steele. While both candidates were well qualified by all accounts and would both make excellent speakers, the position is Steele's at this point.

Why will Steele's selection as the next speaker be important to Oklahoma County voters come 2012? Because redistricting legislative districts is more about politics than it is about voting lines, and the political motivations behind the selection of Steele as speaker play heavily in the favor of rural legislators. 

Speaker Steele will have enormous input on where the legislative lines are drawn. And although, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Oklahoma City metro area continues to outpace the rest of the state's growth by a rate of almost 2 to 1, and Edmond is outpacing the state's growth at a rate of almost 4 to 1, rural legislators will be looking to the speaker they helped elect to protect their turf by gerrymandering their districts. It's been done many times before.

If a battle is waged over redistricting, it may not be fought over partisan lines as much as geography. With rural legislators looking to solidify their positions and their districts, and urban legislators representing growing population centers, the redistricting effort of 2012 may make for some very strange bedfellows. And with many policies relating to education, economic development and energy turning more on urban-versus-rural voting patterns, the issue is certainly one to watch for Oklahoma County voters. 

Stay tuned.

Smith is an attorney living in Oklahoma City.

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