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Idaho GOP in intense internal fight over redistricting

Mon., Jan. 23, 2012, 4:57 p.m.

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho’s dominant Republican Party on Monday deepened an intense internal fight, with the state GOP chairman and House speaker announcing they’d fired two of their own redistricting commissioners, at least in part because they hadn’t helped the party enough.

Meanwhile, the two commissioners have refused to go without a fight — and the Republican attorney general agrees they can’t be ousted against their will. On Monday, the Republicans produced a legal opinion of their own, however, contending Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s office has it wrong.

Already once last week, the Idaho Supreme Court intervened in the state’s latest bid to draw up new legislative district boundaries, throwing out a previously approved set of maps because it split too many counties.

Now, justices may be called into action again, to determine if Republican Chairman Norm Semanko and Idaho House Speaker Lawerence Denney are legally entitled to remove Randy Hansen, a former Twin Falls legislator, and Dolores Crow, a former House member from Nampa, from the commission.

“State Chairman Norm Semanko and Idaho House Speaker Lawerence Denney have removed Randy Hansen and Dolores Crow from the Idaho Redistricting Commission effective immediately,” according to a press release from the state Republican party. “The names of the two new commissioners will be released Tuesday morning.”

Jonathan Parker, the state Republican Party executive director, said Semanko believes a new commissioner is necessary to move forward, given the previous map was ruled unconstitutional and that Hansen hails from Twin Falls County, the local government that led the lawsuit challenging the previous plan.

Denney said last week members of his House caucus were unhappy with Republicans on the commission because they “gave too much away” to minority Democrats by joining a 6-0, unanimous vote approving the redistricting maps in October.

Redistricting is done every 10 years, to reconfigure legislative district boundaries to reflect the latest U.S. Census figures and preserve one-person, one-vote principles.

And the process almost always fraught with bitter legal fights — not just in Idaho, but elsewhere, too.

In Arizona, for instance, that state’s high court delivered a stinging defeat to Republican Gov. Jan Brewer in November by reinstating a redistricting commissioner she’d fired.

The Idaho redistricting panel whose previous legislative map was declared unconstitutional is due to meet again Thursday to come up with an alternative. They’ve said they think they can work quickly, given the Idaho Supreme Court’s strict guidelines not to divide more counties than necessary.

Hansen said he’s planning on rejoining the commission later this week.

“I made a commitment to the citizens of the state of Idaho that I would fulfill my responsibility as a commissioner,” Hansen said. “I made that commitment to the citizens, not to Representative Denney or Norm Semanko.”

Crow also said she’s not going without a fight.

“My phone has rung off the hook, people I don’t even know, and they’re saying, ‘Good for you. You hang in there,’ ” Crow said. “I’m going to hang in there.”

She cited Wasden’s opinion — issued Friday to Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa — that concluded political leaders like Denney and Semanko are given the authority appoint commissioners, but they don’t appear to be able to remove them.

Crow contends that’s for a reason: To take brazen politics and partisanship out of the redistricting process. She maintains her panel tried to draw up boundaries that were blind to questions of incumbency and party allegiance.

“If they (Semanko and Denney) were able to appoint somebody else, this could go on, ad nauseum, until you got your own way. Whoever ‘you’ is,” Crow said. “The law was set up for it to be a citizen’s commission. That was to keep this kind of thing from happening.”

Meanwhile, Republican officials offered a legal opinion of their own, saying Wasden’s office had gotten it wrong. They cited two cases, including a 1963 lawsuit from Garden City, where the Supreme Court ruled city officials have the power to remove somebody from a board chairmanship — even if there’s no explicit language in an ordinance allowing them to do so.

“The power to appoint is the power to remove such an appointee,” wrote Christ Troupis, the GOP lawyer, in a note to Denney.

In addition to Crow and Hansen, the redistricting commission includes Republican Sheila Olsen, as well as Democrats Ron Beitelspacher, Shauneen Grange and Elmer Martinez.

Democrats say they’re sticking by their commissioners, while Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, has no plans to replace Olsen, his appointee, saying she worked well the first time.

Democratic Party State Chairman Larry Grant fired off a missive at Republicans, calling this a battle for the soul of the state GOP.

“This year’s redistricting fight is not between Democrats and Republicans,” Grant said. “It’s a fight between GOP party bosses on one side and reasonable Republicans on the other.”

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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