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Fight Brews Over Montana's New Congressional District

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

For the first time in almost 30 years, Montana will have not one but two seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. That's based on the latest U.S. Census population counts. And while many there are celebrating the news, there's already a fight for political power. Montana Public Radio's Shaylee Ragar reports.

SHAYLEE RAGAR, BYLINE: In his home office overlooking Montana's small capital city of Helena, Joe Lamson unrolls a map he's particularly fond of. It shows the state's legislative districts in the early 2000s. Lamson says Montana historian Harry Fritz used to say this about it.

JOE LAMSON: This map came out, and he said, it's the best map drawn in Montana since Lewis and Clark came through.

RAGAR: Lamson, a Democrat, has been thinking about the state's districts for more than four decades. He was a political staffer and campaign manager, and now he's a member of the state's districting commission. For the past 30 years, he's been crunching numbers, trying to figure out how the state can regain the congressional seat it lost in 1990.

LAMSON: The growth rates of the other part of the country were just - we just never could keep up. And so, no, I didn't think that we'd get our district back in my lifetime.

RAGAR: In 2022, Montana will send two representatives to D.C. for the first time since 1993. So I asked Lamson how he celebrated.

LAMSON: I set out on my deck here and poured myself a couple of glasses of wine.

RAGAR: Instead of lawmakers drawing new maps, Montana's district commission was created by the 1972 state constitution with the goal of taking politics out of redistricting. Lamson and the other members have been planning to get to work this summer. But the morning after the news of the new district came, Republican lawmakers in the state were already trying to muscle their way into the process. Lamson says he was disappointed but not surprised.

LAMSON: This is kind of out of the Republican national playbook.

RAGAR: Senator Greg Hertz and fellow Republicans rushed through a policy to give themselves a seat at the redistricting table. It sets out rules for the commission to follow when drawing district lines.

GREG HERTZ: No one likes gerrymandering districts. And that's my primary concern. You know, people need to be represented in their common areas where they live together, in the valleys they live together, in the communities they live together. It's much easier to contact your representatives when we have districts that look like that.

RAGAR: At a Friday press conference, Republican Governor Greg Gianforte declined to say whether he supports the measure but did say that he doesn't want gerrymandered districts. Democrats pushed back against the proposal to no avail. They say the districting process shouldn't be politicized by the legislature and that the bill is unconstitutional.

TA’JIN PEREZ: This isn't something that should benefit one or the other. This should benefit the people.

RAGAR: Ta’jin Perez is deputy director of a Western Native Voice, a nonprofit that advocates for Native American empowerment. He stresses that Native Americans have been historically underrepresented in the state, in part due to gerrymandered districts.

PEREZ: These districts should recognize and be appropriately representative of the communities that are in Montana.

RAGAR: Tribes in Montana have fought what they call unfair districts in the state before, have won and have won more representation because of it.

PEREZ: Going up to vote is a way of honoring the ancestors and honoring the people in the past who have made those kinds of sacrifices and who have gone into courtrooms to fight those battles for equal representation.

RAGAR: Perez says he's ready if those battles need to be fought again. For NPR News, I'm Shaylee Ragar in Helena, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.