Opinion: Danbury not immune to gerrymandering

In 1812, Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed into law a partisan plan to pack Federalist Party supporters — a party that opposed him — into just a few districts, thereby giving clear advantage to the Democratic and Republican parties. Thus, the term “gerrymandering” was born.

While it might seem an archaic thought, this practice remains all too real today. Gerrymandering is the intentional political manipulation of electoral district boundaries to create an undue advantage for a party, group or socioeconomic class within that constituency. Simply put: this is a tactic employed by those in power so they can keep it.

Often, we hear of states like Alabama, Texas, Georgia and Louisiana for implementing racially discriminatory maps intended to dilute the voice of Black, Latino and Asian voters. But Connecticut is not immune to gerrymandering — and neither is Danbury.

By law, every municipality in Connecticut after each census must proportionately and fairly adjust local voting districts, otherwise known as redistricting or reapportionment. In Danbury, the charter requires this process to be completed by March 1, 2023. To begin the reapportionment-process, the City Council appointed a commission in February 2022 of two Republicans and two Democrats to develop reapportionment maps. That was the commission on which I served 10 years ago. One of those Republicans chosen this time was Mike Safranek, the current Republican Town Committee chairman! This curious and potentially biased decision was made by the Republican Council Majority Leader. Safranek is no stranger to City Hall — he also has a job as the airport administrator, a city parking ticket hearing officer and a Danbury constable. And he was chosen 10 years ago, as well.

The goal of the commission is to review the census data and current ward maps and recommend a plan for approval by the City Council. Although the Democrats on the commission, Duane Perkins and Ben Chianese, presented a plan, Safranek and his Republican colleague presented nothing at all. Months and months passed and the Republicans presented no maps, no revision lines — nothing at all for the council or the public to analyze and evaluate. A vote was taken on the only new ward map that was presented, but the vote failed as Safranek voted no. Why the Republicans didn’t present anything at all is curious, but the task then went back to the City Council.

Now the mayor appointed an ad hoc committee from the City Council comprised of one Democrat and two Republicans. At last week’s public meeting, Republicans, for the very first time, proposed an impressively gerrymandered map that would destroy the fabric of our neighborhoods and fundamentally change representation in our city for the next decade. Not only does the Republican plan move four of the seven incumbent Democrats on the City Council into one single new 5th Ward (the Republicans claimed they truly had not looked at the residences of current council representatives), it also reinvents the very structure of each of the seven wards — a “philosophical change.” those on attendance were told. But no “philosophy” was presented. The evidence is clear from an evaluation of the maps.

Democrats, on the other hand, have proposed a much fairer, unbiased, lawful map that modifies wards only to smallest extent necessary and naturally without consideration of councilmember residency or party lines. They used the criteria set forth 10 years ago by the Connecticut Supreme Court in its instructions to the special master appointed to redraw the congressional districts:

“In developing the plan, the Special Master shall modify the existing... districts only to the extent reasonably required to comply.” In other words, try to make as few changes as possible to the existing lines, but naturally, of course, meet the criteria of as equal in population as is practicable. The city charter requires no more than a 10 percent deviation from one ward to another. Also, the special master “shall not consider either the residency of incumbents or potential candidate or other political data.”

Republicans have taken what should be a fair, unbiased process to ensure Danbury residents’ voices are heard and turned it into what one can only described as an attempt to hold onto their power disenfranchising and hurting residents in the process. I write that conclusion because 10 years ago, they tried the same shenanigans so we have all seen this playbook before. Republicans tried then — and they failed for good reason and rationale. We must make sure this senseless proposal fails again.

Councilman Warren Levy is already on the record saying what those that are in his party and who are now in power seem to have forgotten: “Danbury’s Wards,” he proclaimed, “are shaped like pies, albeit slightly odd-looking ones. The idea is that each ward has a part of the urban downtown area and then spreads out into the suburbs so that council members represent a ‘cross section’ of the population.’” That is an enlightening idea — and the idea that the that Democratic proposed map embraces following decades of precedent as to how the wards are aligned. Levy and his Republican colleagues should take those words to heart.

Republican council members: Please reevaluate your gerrymandering methods and tactics and ask yourselves if the map you propose would help more than just “those in the room.” Let’s restore dignity to the reapportionment process.

Lawrence M. Riefberg is chairman of the Danbury Democratic Town Committee and a member of the 2012 Danbury Reappointment Commission.