LINCOLN — Competing partisan plans to redraw Nebraska's three congressional districts should come with two labels:
“Help Lee Terry” or “Hurt Lee Terry.”
The Republican congressman who represents the Omaha-based 2nd district would get the benefit of the GOP-rich suburbs of western Sarpy County under the plan a fellow Republican floated Tuesday in the Legislature.
That plan would “safeguard” Terry by making his district more Republican, said Paul Landow, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a former Democratic strategist.
Meanwhile, the two plans Democratic state senators put forward would keep the more Democratic areas of Sarpy County in the 2nd District — Bellevue and neighborhoods just across the Douglas County line from South Omaha.
Their plans — with other shifting to the west and north — would give Democrats a better chance in Terry's district and in the congressional home of Lincoln, the 1st Congressional District, said John Hibbing, professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The Legislature must approve any changes to the state's political boundaries, and the three plans unveiled Tuesday provide only the first look at congressional redistricting ideas from the nine-member Redistricting Committee. Other senators can propose amendments or bring forward their own plans.
The maps are the beginning of an always-political process, and the discussion will be highly partisan — as it is every decade when drawing congressional boundaries.
Republicans hold the upper hand. They outnumber Democrats 34-15 in the officially nonpartisan Unicameral. Awaiting the bill is Republican Gov. Dave Heineman.
Much of the focus of Tuesday's three maps was on how to divide Sarpy County — and whether to keep Bellevue and Offutt Air Force Base in its traditional 2nd District home or move it to the more Republican 1st District, now represented by U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, a Republican from Lincoln.
How you slice up Sarpy County has a major bearing on the 2nd District — arguably the state's only toss-up. Its voters re-elected Terry but sent President Barack Obama an electoral vote in 2008.
The plan advanced by Omaha State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha, a leading Republican, appears to give the GOP a slight edge.
Peter Longo, a Bellevue native and now political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, said it looks odd to move Bellevue and Offutt into the 1st District. Residents of Bellevue, Longo said, commute north to Omaha for work and other activities.
Lautenbaugh said his map puts most of the suburban areas of Sarpy and Douglas Counties into the same district.
There was little appetite to divide Douglas County, he said, so Sarpy County had to be further partitioned to reflect 2nd District population growth.
“Part of Sarpy has to go, part of Sarpy has to stay ... you just pick your poison,” he said.
The proposals advanced by State Sens. Heath Mello of Omaha and Bill Avery of Lincoln — both former Democratic Party officials — would keep eastern Sarpy County and Bellevue in the 2nd District, while giving more of the newer housing subdivisions of central and western Sarpy County to the 1st District.
Mello said his map of Sarpy County mirrors a “base map” produced by the Legislature's Research Office — a map senators used as a starting point in drafting their plans.
“It is the most nonpartisan map in the most partisan exercise of the redistricting process,” he said, and one that follows legislative intent “to a T.”
“(Research office workers) weren't looking at any other political data or talking to someone on the outside,” Mello said. “Bellevue has been part of the 2nd congressional district as long as anyone can remember.”
Bellevue Sen. Abbie Cornett, a childhood friend of Lee Terry, declined to be pulled into the debate. She said her community would be well represented by either Terry or Fortenberry, though Terry has more seniority.
The congressman himself acknowledged that some change was inevitable.
“The population growth of my district makes losing at least 30,000 constituents a necessary reality,” Terry told The World-Herald. “I have worked hard to build a great relationship with the people of the Bellevue community, but I understand the reality of the situation.”
The committee is attempting to advance recommendations by Friday so public hearings can be held on May 13.
Tuesday's congressional maps made some interesting changes to other areas as well:
>>Lautenbaugh's plan would move Gage County and Beatrice, along with extreme northeast Nebraska, including South Sioux City, out of the 1st District and into the sprawling 3rd District that covers the western two-thirds of the state. That would move some Democratic areas out of the 1st District and gain GOP-leaning Platte County and Columbus.
>>Mello's map would create a “Pac-man” shaped 3rd District that includes more of northeast Nebraska and more counties along the Kansas border. His map would keep Platte County in the 3rd District, which its leaders requested in a letter from the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce.
>>Avery's proposal would make the most drastic changes, creating a 1st Congressional District almost entirely south of the Platte River, with Lincoln at its center. It harkens back to the pioneer days of the state when the “South Platters” wrestled away the State Capitol from the “North Platters,” resulting in the move from Omaha to Lincoln.
Lincoln, Avery said, is the demographic center of the 1st District and his map reflects that.
His map also would move the Republican stronghold of Madison County out of the 1st District, giving Democrats some advantage.
Omaha Sen. John Nelson, a Republican, had a quick assessment of Avery's plan: “That is not going to fly.”
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