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The Future of Redistricting and Rural America

Redistricting is not likely to be kind to the political clout of rural areas.

Old truck in tall, dry grass in rural America
Trey Ratcliff/Flickr CC
Patsy Ticer is a pretty powerful Virginia state senator, representing an economically vital part of her state: the Senate’s 30th district. That district includes Alexandria and parts of Arlington and Fairfax counties—inner-ring suburbs directly across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. Her district is home to federal workers, defense contractors, immigrants and young middle-class couples. It has subway stations, dog parks, farmers markets and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

But after the 2007 elections, when Ticer was named chair of the Virginia Senate committee in charge of agricultural issues, she found herself teased by a lobbyist.

The lobbyist asked, Ticer remembers, “Now Sen. Ticer, have you found out how many cows there are in Virginia yet?”

A senator from District 30 finding herself in charge of agricultural issues partially reflects the vagaries of the legislative committee system. Ticer’s committee is Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources. Ticer has a long-standing interest in conservation issues, and agriculture comes with the territory.

But her chairmanship also reflects the way Virginia is changing. In a state once defined by its tobacco fields, Virginia’s population and political power has moved to Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Those regions increasingly have become urbanized and suburbanized. Rural interests aren’t as important in Virginia’s Capitol as they once were. The story is the same in many other states such as Georgia, Illinois and Texas, where suburban and exurban areas have boomed while rural ones haven’t.

Next year, that population shift will have lasting consequences. With the once-a-decade redistricting process, state legislatures will be charged with redrawing the nation’s political lines to reflect where people live. A proportionally smaller rural population will mean that fewer state legislators and congressmen represent rural areas in the next decade -- and likely for many decades to come. The shift will leave rural areas grappling with a future in which the fate of issues they care about are at the mercy of people who rarely catch a glimpse of a cow.

Making the Move from Rural to Suburban

The U.S. Census Bureau is still weeks away from reporting its numbers, but pundits already have declared the winner in this round of reapportionment: Texas. Preliminary estimates show that since 2000, the state grew more than twice as fast as the national average. That growth will put Texas in line for perhaps four additional seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and four extra votes in the Electoral College. But not all of Texas will win.

Texas’ growth is powered by the outward expansion of its major metropolitan areas. The nation’s 25 fastest growing counties over the last decade include Rockwall and Collin counties near Dallas, Williamson and Hays counties near Austin, and Fort Bend and Montgomery counties near Houston. Large parts of Texas are becoming one giant exurb, especially along the highway that connects Dallas to Austin to San Antonio. “If you look back 10 or 20 years ago and you were to drive the Interstate 35 corridor, there were vast areas where there really was very little,” says Lloyd Potter, Texas state demographer. “Now you see developments of big box stores and subdivisions.”

Texas’ big cities aren’t growing quite as fast as these surrounding counties, but they’re still growing impressively. In Texas’ five biggest cities, population growth this decade ranges from 9 percent in Dallas to 34 percent in Fort Worth. In this regard, Texas is a microcosm of the nation. Despite the exoduses from a few Detroits and Clevelands, the last decade has generally been kind to the nation’s big cities. Overall, the nation’s 50 largest cities have seen their populations grow by 7.5 percent, only slightly less than the national average of 9 percent.

Amid all the growth in Texas, it would be easy to miss that more than 100 counties in the state lost population over the last decade. Of these shrinking counties, only two have populations of more than 100,000. Most of the shrinking counties are in the vast area west of I-35. Young people are fleeing these areas to look for jobs.

Kel Seliger knows better than most what these trends mean for political representation. Seliger is a state senator from Amarillo. His current district comprises 26 counties stretching from the Oklahoma border nearly all the way to the Mexican border -- “slightly smaller than the state of Indiana” is how he describes it. Next year, when it comes time for redistricting, Seliger’s old lines won’t contain enough people to support a district, which means it will have to grow larger still. It may add another 10 to 15 counties. This massive area of West Texas will have only one state senator in Austin.

That’s only half the trend. Rural areas aren’t just losing some of their population -- they’re ceasing to be rural at all. Located about 35 miles from Washington, D.C., Loudoun County, Va., used to be known for its horse farms. Today, as the nation’s fifth fastest growing county since 2000, it has become famous for its new subdivisions, town centers and traffic jams. Ticer’s inner-ring suburbs are experiencing moderate growth, but Virginia’s fastest population growth is in suburbs that weren’t suburbs 20 years ago. The trend is similar in many other states, from Illinois and Minnesota to California, Georgia and Florida. Just six of Illinois’ 102 counties, all of them suburbs and exurbs of Chicago, account for the entirety of the state’s 500,000 net growth in population over the last decade.

The Effects of the Population Shift

All of this is a source of economic and political anxiety for people who live far from the nation’s population hubs. So it was considered a small coup for Texas’ rural communities that the person picked to lead the Senate committee in charge of redistricting is a West Texan himself: Seliger.

The senator, though, doesn’t want anyone to view him as the savior of rural Texas. “Numbers dictate redistricting,” Seliger says. “That’s something nobody can do anything about.” Most rural legislators echo Seliger. The principle of “one person, one vote,” prevents lawmakers from doing any more than manipulating lines along the margins to preserve rural power.

The shift has major implications for a variety of policy issues, most of which have little to do with counting cows. Will education funding formulas favor urban districts or rural ones? Will states spend on mass transit or rural roads? Will rural broadband and telemedicine be priorities? Those are the sorts of topics Seliger cites as his concerns. “I don’t represent a district from the 1940s,” he says. “I represent people that live and work and go to school today.”

Georgia is a good case study for why the balance of power between rural areas and urban and suburban areas matters. Rural Georgians -- or at least some of them -- have long asked why Atlanta gets the lion’s share of the state’s roads, jobs and water. They view the city as a hotbed of corruption. For their part, many Atlantans have long viewed the rest of the state as backward, unappreciative of their economic contributions and probably at least a little bit racist. Some of the tension has centered on Atlanta itself -- a bastion of liberalism in a conservative state -- but tension also exists between the broader Atlanta metro area and the rest of the state. “There has been a long-standing saying in Georgia that there are two Georgias,” says state Rep. Jay Roberts. “You have Atlanta, and you have outside the doughnut.”

As chairman of the Georgia House of Representatives Transportation Committee, it was Roberts’ job early this year to make the two Georgias one on the nettlesome transportation funding issue. For the last few years, the top priority of Atlanta’s business leaders has been to find new money for roads. They worried that congestion was slowly killing the economic vibrancy of the South’s capital. But rural Georgians didn’t want their tax dollars to fund roads in a part of the state that, in their view, already received more than it deserved. Efforts to raise the sales tax statewide stalled.

Finally, this year lawmakers reached a compromise. There won’t be two Georgias, but 12. Each region will vote on whether to raise its sales tax to fund a list of transportation projects in its own region. Atlanta’s leaders celebrated the breakthrough as a historic victory. Still, they had to battle for years merely to gain permission to tax themselves. Rural lawmakers held enough sway to veto any plan that put their communities at a disadvantage.

After Georgia elects a Legislature with the redrawn lines in 2012, that power will be diminished. State Rep. Roger Lane, chairman of the Georgia House’s Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Committee, says the 29-county Atlanta region could control as many as 100 of the House’s 180 seats, giving the region a clear majority for the first time. That won’t mean that Atlanta will simply be able to run roughshod over the rest of the state. Those 100 representatives will come from different parties and different jurisdictions with different interests. Still, on topics like water and transportation policies, rural Georgia may be playing defense. “It can’t be us against metro Atlanta,” says Lane, whose district is nearly 200 miles southeast of Atlanta, “because they have the votes.”

Protecting Rural Interests

The question for rural legislators is how to protect their interests with the members who are left. One option is solidarity.

That’s the message preached by Maryland Delegate Sally Jameson, who recently chaired the National Conference of State Legislatures’ (NCSL) Agriculture and Energy Standing Committee. Jameson says the creation of the Maryland Legislature’s Rural Caucus about a decade ago helped check the power of lawmakers from Baltimore and the big Washington, D.C., suburbs. Legislators from the state’s far-flung places -- southern Maryland, the Eastern Shore and western Maryland -- realized that they shared common interests on subjects like rural broadband. They also realized that together they controlled about half the seats in the House of Delegates. “It doesn’t matter that we’re Republicans or Democrats,” says Jameson. “If we pull together as rural legislators, with just a couple of people from other parts of the state, we can win a vote.” This summer, Jameson preached the value of active rural caucuses at NCSL’s annual meeting.

If you know Maryland’s geography though, Jameson is a somewhat unlikely rural champion. She represents part of Charles County, a jurisdiction in southern Maryland that’s directly across the Potomac River from Fairfax County, Va. Charles County isn’t shrinking -- its population has jumped from around 120,000 in 2000 to more than 140,000 today. That’s because it’s quickly suburbanizing. “Sixty percent of my community commutes out of my county every day,” Jameson says. “They drive into Washington, Baltimore, Northern Virginia to jobs.”

That a lawmaker for Charles County still thinks of herself as rural is a hopeful sign for the future of rural interests. Lots of lawmakers in booming suburbs and exurbs still will have rural pieces to their districts after redistricting. Many of them may still have an affinity for rural life, even if it’s disappearing around them. Whether these legislators are oriented toward the cities or the country will likely determine the fate of rural causes in legislatures over the next decade. “We don’t have but five or six truly rural members left,” says Texas state Rep. Sid Miller, a former chair of the state’s House Agriculture and Livestock Committee, “but we don’t tell them they’re not rural.”

Even if some suburban lawmakers continue to think of themselves as rural -- and at times, vote like their rural colleagues -- some rebalancing of political power will come with redistricting. Many legislatures have been dominated by rural members for decades. In most states, those days are over. To get anything done going forward, rural lawmakers will have to find common interests with suburban colleagues or even urban ones.

Ticer, for one, says she’s eager for compromise. She notes that in Virginia, environmentalists and farmers have joined together to prod the state to provide more funding for efforts to limit runoff into the Chesapeake Bay. She’d like to see more efforts like that. “I really do subscribe to the idea that we are a commonwealth, and it’s very important what happens in all parts of the state,” Ticer says. “And certainly agriculture is a very important part of our economy.”

But did Ticer ever find out how many cows there are in Virginia? “No, I didn’t,” she says. “Quite frankly, I didn’t make too big of an effort.”

Andy Kim is a former GOVERNING staff writer.
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