COLUMN: The map is dead; long live the map

This is my Sunday column for the Feb. 19, 2012 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Check back on Tuesday for my analysis of the new redistricting maps in Minnesota and how they’ll affect northern Minnesota politics. It will be a very busy week.

The map is dead; long live the map
By Aaron J. Brown

“You can’t take politics out of politics, and there is nothing more political than redistricting,”
– Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas)

“If there’s a place you got to get, I can get you there I bet. I’m the map.”
– The Map, “Dora the Explorer”

“I have an existential map. It has ‘You are here’ written all over it.”
– Steven Wright

Before this Tuesday afternoon, a five-judge panel will release Minnesota’s new legislative and Congressional district maps. This is part of the process that begins every 10 years with the U.S. Census. These maps have the potential to change the outcomes of this year’s elections based on where incumbents are placed and which communities are joined by these otherwise arbitrary lines.

As usual, political leaders in the legislature were unable to agree with the governor on the composition of the maps and the issue was sent to the courts. This has been the case nearly every time the legislature and governor’s mansion were occupied by different parties.

Though it’s not a hot topic on the streets among normal people, this is always a big deal to politicians and the media. And soon enough you’ll see why it matters to everybody else.

Northern Minnesota has seen significant demographic change in the last 30 years. Population has declined overall, especially in towns, though it has grown in rural townships where forests and lakes have attracted retirees and professionals. The numbers tell a story of a place.

This place was a rural industrial bottle rocket through the 20th Century, exploding from a native wilderness with the impassioned power of immigrants and steel. It grew in political significance as its immigrants became citizens and senators, but declined when the grandchildren of those immigrants left with the economic collapse of the 1980s.

The conventional wisdom is that this meant the “death” of the region, but that is far from true. In fact, we’re quite well dug in for the long haul around here; just for a different sort of existence. There will be more retirees and older workers living here by choice and a number of younger people working in service industries.

Just last week the Center for Rural Living released an analysis showing an “age gap” in rural America, one I think we can recognize in northern Minnesota. You find a large number of older people and a large number of young people. Found in smaller numbers include those in their prime income-earning, tax-paying leadership years. You can cut the issue a lot of different ways, but as a good mechanic would say, “Well, there’s your problem.”

The last two redistricting efforts, in 1992 and 2002 have reflected this demographic change. This year, 2012, will bring the largest changes to date.

The biggest effects will be seen in the legislative map. Here on the Iron Range, the last two redistricting efforts have endeavored to protect incumbents to the degree possible. However, the continued loss of population on the Range has pushed this approach to a breaking point. Lake Superior to the east, Canada to the north, and the even more population-starved plains counties to the west mean there is nowhere else for district lines to go but south.

At least one Range state senator and probably two Range state representatives will likely be out of office next year as a result of Tuesday’s redistricting maps. Exactly how the maps are drawn could change the landscape even more, based on which communities are grouped together.

Congressional redistricting could also be dramatic. For all the drama over potential DFL challengers and the prospects of incumbent freshman Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-MN8), this simple little map could turn the race upside down.

Already, the race for Congress in Minnesota’s 8th District will be unlike any seen before. Between the vast amount of outside spending, the shifting population and political dynamic of the region and the grind of a nation going through large changes, we can’t predict what will happen. Tuesday will be a big day in the story.

Redistricting has been discussed far too much by some sectors of society and is barely on the radar of a much larger group of citizens. Too often we are mistaken about why these maps happen. They happen because of the way people live their lives.

Aaron J. Brown is a writer and college instructor from the Iron Range. He is the author of the blog and host of the Great Northern Radio Show on 91.7 KAXE.


  1. Well stated Aaron…it’ll be fun to watch it play out.

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