Republicans seize moment on redistricting

Saturday, January 19th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Republicans believe they have gained momentum in the congressional redistricting battle, thanks to inaction by Democrats and the retirement of U.S. Rep. Wes Watkins.

Last week, Gov. Frank Keating and the five members of the Republican delegation to Congress announced agreement on a GOP plan that gives incumbents a measure of protection.

It was the first ``official'' redistricting plan to be made public.

The proposal radically changes the configuration of the 3rd Congressional District, which Watkins now represents.

Democratic leaders quickly called it incumbent protection and predicted it would not survive intact. Republicans believe the plan meets constitutional tests and lacks any strange configurations.

Oklahoma now has five Republican congressmen and only one Democrat. But the state is losing a Congress member because its population did not grow as fast as other states in the past decade.

Initially, Democrats, as the majority party, had the upper hand in determining how congressional boundaries would be drawn.

Republicans believe that edge has dwindled because of a united front presented by GOP congressmen around a single plan and the fact that Democrats have not publicly agreed on anything.

``It's always better to be proactive instead of inactive,'' Keating said last week as he prepared to leave on a duck hunting outing in Arkansas.

After Republicans announced their plan on Monday, House Speaker Larry Adair, D-Stilwell, said Democrats would soon disclose their proposal and it possibly could be considered at a special session prior to convening of the regular session on Feb. 4.

But at week's end, the two Democrats in charge of congressional redistricting _ Rep. Loyd Benson and Sen. Kevin Easley _ had only a cursory discussion.

An aide to one Congress member said Democrats ``messed up'' by not acting on redistricting prior to special elections in the 1st Congressional District.

First lady Cathy Keating was upset in the primary by state Rep. John Sullivan, who defeated Democrat Doug Dodd in the general election on Jan. 8.

``With the first lady in the race, the governor's hands were kind of tied and Republican members of Congress did not want to push any plan that put anybody together,'' said the congressional aide, who did not want to be quoted by name. ``Democrats might have been able to push their deal through.''

Watkins' decision to retire changed everything, Keating said, making it much easier to draw districts that did not couple incumbents.

Under the Republican plan, a new 3rd District would be created largely in the western Oklahoma area now represented by Rep. Frank Lucas of Cheyenne. The district would be extended to the east, picking up GOP strongholds such as Bartlesville.

The plan creates a new 2nd District that would stretch from Kansas to Texas in eastern Oklahoma.

Benson, D-Frederick, said the Republican plan was obviously designed to protect incumbents and differed from goals that had been discussed by members of the House and Senate redistricting panels.

``No. 1, it doesn't keep the three military bases together that all six congressmen said was essential when we began our meetings last fall,'' Benson said. ``Their feeling was that if we didn't have all of them in the same district, it could affect keeping a member of the House Armed Services Committee.''

Rep. J.C. Watts of the 4th Congressional District would retain representation of Tinker Air Force Base and Fort Still Army Base under the GOP plan, but Altus Air Force Base would move into the new 3rd District.

Benson also said the Republican plan failed to accomplish what Rep. Steve Largent's people campaigned for _ ``keeping the three oil centers of Tulsa, Ponca City and Bartlesville together.''

But the former House speaker was most critical of GOP's proposed 3rd District in western and northern Oklahoma, which stretches 322 miles from Hollis in southwestern Oklahoma to Bartlesville in the north.

It would be difficult, if not impossible, for any congressmen to visit all the towns in the 3rd district during a two-year election cycle, Benson said.

``Their plan also doesn't meet the test of the resolution passed by the Oklahoma City City Council, saying they would prefer to continue having three congressmen from Oklahoma County rather than just one of two,'' he added.

Benson said the Democratic plan will pass constitutional muster.

While it is not designed to protect incumbents, he said ``it is my intent that we place each of the five incumbents in a separate district.''

Prior to Watkins' retirement announcement, Easley had said there was little choice but to pare two GOP incumbents.