Fate unclear for Democratic legislator cut off from constituents in Republican-drawn proposal
Proposed new boundary lines carve one of Arkansas’s most popular and effective Democratic state lawmakers away from half of her current constituents and into a new district that’s significantly more rural and conservative.
And while most Democrats didn’t have high hopes for a redistricting process controlled completely by Republicans, the wholesale rework of Rep. Megan Godfrey‘s Springdale district took her, and many others, by surprise.
“I was very surprised and extremely disappointed,” Godfrey said about the draft map that chops into her current District 89 covering downtown Springdale. The new map pencils Godfrey into a district that spills north and eastward past the Washington County line to take in rural communities in Benton County. This proposed new District 11 in which Godfrey lives is shaped like the profile of a seated hunchback man facing westward, and Godfrey’s house sits right around the big toe, at about the farthest possible southward and westward point.
Governor Hutchinson came strong out of the gate at the maps’ unveiling last week, touting the proposed new lines as a way to boost minority voices by creating two additional districts in which voters of color make up the majority. But a second look by the ACLU and NAACP of Arkansas could make a different assessment. They’re still analyzing the proposed changes, including weighing how those minority population counts were made.
“It appears the Board of Apportionment used total population numbers in drawing the maps and in saying that there are new majority-minority districts, whereas the appropriate measure is the voting age population. That is the standard under federal law that the voting age population, not the total population, should be calculated,” ACLU Arkansas Director Holly Dickson told KUAR’s Daniel Breen.
Despite the odd assurance from Republican redistricting coordinator Betty Dickey that projecting incumbents was a priority (should it be?), the proposed new maps will likely make re-election harder for other sitting Democrats, too. Rep. Jay Richardson (D-Fort Smith), for example, is drawn into a district that’s far more rural and conservative than his current one.
Data-crunching phenom Brady Shiers stuffed his Twitter feed with analysis of the proposed maps over the past week, and found that on the House side, the new maps would likely give Republicans two extra seats in 2022 that they wouldn’t have if the maps remained unchanged.
Without further ado, I present the 2021 Arkansas House of Representatives map. DRA states that there 11D seats, 77R seats and 11 that fall within the 45%-55% competitive range. pic.twitter.com/Y5m7Edz6oa
— Brady Shiers (@BradyShiers) October 30, 2021
A Spanish-speaking champion for Arkansas’s large and growing Latino community in Northwest Arkansas, Godfrey said she had heard the talk about the state getting its first-ever Latino majority district and thought she’d make the cut.
The map makers did indeed create a Latino majority district, but Godfrey isn’t in it.
“When I saw the lines and saw that I was excluded from that district, and that my current district was really cut in half and that I would lose a lot of my constituents, it felt very disappointing,” Godfrey said.
All the more disappointing because she’d gotten her hopes up. Godfrey met multiple times with representatives from the secretary of state’s and attorney general’s offices to look at drafts and offer feedback, with the goal of keeping school districts and neighborhoods together in a way that makes sense.
Godfrey also spoke with the governor himself.
“He made the point to tell me that he had planned to increase the Latino population in my district and was excited about the potential for a majority Latino district,” Godfrey said. The governor made no promises, but Godfrey said she felt confident that she would be included in the Latino majority district that was in the works.
She took to Facebook over the past weekend to share her thoughts on the proposed maps, and was candid about her reaction. “I don’t know why these lines were drawn like this. They’re different from any drafts I saw or conversations I had,” she said.
Godfrey said she believes Hutchinson and the team of people he appointed to help draw the new maps on his behalf didn’t intentionally draw her into a new district with a substantially different constituency that skews far more rural and red.
“The governor has operated in good faith with me, particularly about Latino issues,” Godfrey said.
Hutchinson has since been in contact with Godfrey and said publicly this week that he would take a second look at the Springdale maps. The public has until the end of November to suggest changes to the proposal before the Board of Apportionment, made up of the governor, secretary of state and attorney general, take a final vote.
But not everyone is convinced there was no ill will at play behind the map proposals now on the table. On AR Watch, a watchdog group to suss out corruption and abuse in state government, has been questioning why Republican operative Rett Hatcher had a hand in redistricting, even as he lobbied the very lawmakers whose fates he helped control.
Now with the Capitol Consulting Firm, which he founded, Hatcher worked for the Gilmore Strategy Group in 2020. Gilmore Strategy Group was paid by the Republican Party of Arkansas to send out a flurry of particularly nasty attack mailers targeting Democrats across the state, including Godfrey in her run against Jedidiah Duggar. While most of Gilmore’s and Hatcher’s targets fell to their Republican challengers, Godfrey held her seat.
The Republican Party of Arkansas is again footing the bill for Hatcher’s work, but this time paying him to help recalibrate legislative maps on the governor’s behalf. Are Republicans using redistricting as a tool to knock Godfrey out of office because they couldn’t get the job done at the ballot box?
That was not his plan or intention, Governor Hutchinson said.
“Bill Gossage, my deputy chief of staff, coordinated my redistricting efforts. The team from my office included Deputy Legal Counsel Andres Rhodes and Nicholas Ortiz. They were the lead in making recommendations to me. Rett worked as a consultant reporting to my team,” Hutchinson said. “Rett was chosen in part because of his experience in the 2011 redistricting process. His knowledge of the legal requirements and intricacies from 10 years ago were valuable as we went through redistricting this year.”
Of the governor’s redistricting team, Hatcher is the only one whose fees are paid by the state Republican party. And while no one is pretending Arkansas state legislative redistricting is a nonpartisan process, allowing the Republicans to literally pay for it seems problematic. The Democratic Party of Arkansas reports they were not invited to participate.
Hutchinson chalks up the checks to Hatcher from RPA to simple accounting.
“It has been my practice to cover various expenses from leftover campaign funds and sometimes from party funds,” he said. “I believe the extra expense of the outside consultant should come from non-taxpayer resources. Mr. Hatcher did not have a vote on the maps.”