Oregon Secretary of State, Jeanne Atkins.

Former Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins is among Democrats hoping to defend the state's new congressional map in court.

Allison Frost / OPB

A national Democratic group is pushing back against claims that Oregon’s new congressional districts are gerrymandered in the party’s favor and urging a judicial panel to okay the map passed by Oregon Democrats last month.

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In a filing Monday on behalf of six Oregonians, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee insists the new maps meet all legal standards and were in fact the product of robust negotiation between Republicans and Democrats.

“This map represents compromise not only because of how it was enacted — with Republicans and Democrats negotiating throughout the process — but also because it is a competitive map that is reflective of the state,” Kelly Burton, president of the NDRC, said in a statement.

With the filing, the NDRC is seeking to insert itself into a fight that began last week, when former Secretary of State Bev Clarno and three other Republicans sued to challenge the congressional map Democrats muscled through in September.

That map includes four U.S. House districts that are either safe for Democrats or lean in the party’s favor, one district that looks to be a Republican stronghold, and one seat that is theoretically a tossup. Clarno and other Republicans say the map was the product of Democrats scheming with special interest groups to secure dominance. They argue the map illogically anchors four districts in liberal Portland, inappropriately splits counties, and grants Oregon Democrats far more power in Congress than their share of the statewide vote.

“The result of this highly partisan process is a clear, egregious partisan gerrymander, as has been widely acknowledged both in Oregon and across the country,” the Republican lawsuit said. “Democrats are projected to win five of the six of Oregon’s congressional seats in a typical year, results that are not even arguably justified by the Democrats’ overall political support in this State or the political geography of the State.”

Oregon Democrats dismissed those claims when they were raised in a special legislative session to draw new districts last month. Now the NDRC is arguing against the Republican arguments in court.

In a filing on behalf of former Democratic Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins and five others, the group suggests the new maps are fair and legal and, in fact, are the product of negotiations between the parties and reflect input from members of the public.

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“The fatal flaw in Petitioners’ challenge to the Compromise Map is their erroneous assertion that it ‘is a clear, egregious partisan gerrymander,’” the NDRC filing reads. “The new congressional districts were not drawn for any partisan purpose, and instead are based on the neutral redistricting criteria enumerated in [state law].”

A piece of the Democratic argument hinges on how the new map was passed. After Republicans said they would not support Democrats’ first proposed congressional maps, House Speaker Tina Kotek reneged on a deal granting the House GOP equal say on what maps were sent for a vote by the entire chamber.

Kotek’s maneuver allowed Democrats to advance their proposals, but Republicans immediately signaled they might simply walk away from the session, denying Democrats the two-thirds quorum needed to conduct business.

Democrats wound up altering their initial congressional map, which would have given the party a strong chance of a 5-1 advantage over the state’s U.S. House seats. The new map was less weighted in Democrats’ favor, analyses suggest, but could tilt in the party’s interest. Republicans eventually returned to the session but objected as Democrats passed the map.

Many within the GOP said the decision to allow the Democratic plan through had little to do with the alterations Democrats made, which they believe are still likely to lead to 5-1 Democratic dominance in Oregon’s U.S. House delegation. Rather, Republicans feared what would happen if they stayed away from session: Maps for the state’s 90 state House and Senate seats would be drawn by Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, a liberal Democrat.

The NDRC filing doesn’t acknowledge that dynamic. Instead, it insists that Republicans returned to the session because House Republican Leader Christine Drazan negotiated a congressional map her GOP colleagues could at least stomach.

“The Compromise Map is the congressional redistricting plan that House Majority Leader Drazan had acceded to in negotiations,” the filing says. Later, it concludes: “Ultimately, both the public and legislative records confirm what various news outlets reported: that the congressional map enacted by the Legislative Assembly and signed by Governor Brown was the result of a compromise among legislative leaders.”

The NDRC also says Oregon’s new congressional map might be more evenly matched than Republicans believe. It points to a blog post by conservative commentator Jim Pasero, who suggested that Republicans might claim four out of the state’s six congressional districts if the 2022 elections result in a “red wave.”

Chaired by Eric Holder, who served as attorney general under former President Barack Obama, the NDRC is a nonprofit political organization that accepts donations from small donors and moneyed Democratic organizations alike. It has weighed in on redistricting fights around the country since its founding in 2017 — most often to fight Republican-passed maps that it argues were illegal.

In a lawsuit filed in Ohio last month, the NDRC made arguments against that state’s GOP-led congressional plans that are similar to those Republicans in Oregon have made in challenging Democrats’ map.

The salvo might not be the only intervention from a national party in Oregon this year. The National Republican Redistricting Trust is also taking an active interest in congressional maps around the country.

A panel made of up five retired circuit court judges from around the state will decide whether the state’s congressional maps are illegal and, if so, how they should be altered.

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