Read Full Story at KUER 90.1 | By Sonja Hutson
Politically, Moab is a blue dot in a sea of red. The city is split down the middle into two different state House districts.
At an early October public hearing hosted by the Legislative Redistricting Committee in Moab, local residents told lawmakers the district split dilutes their voice in the state Legislature. They asked the committee to put the city into one district as it redraws the lines.
Sam Van Wetter, who lives in Moab and is an organizer with the Rural Utah Project, sat in a black plastic chair in the middle of the room where the meeting was being held.
“I just moved between districts last week,” he said. “My new house is — they’re less than a half mile apart, but they’re in different districts. It doesn’t change my day-to-day all that much. But knowing that just an address change could change who’s representing me — it makes our town feel separated out in a way that I think is inappropriate.”
The Grand County Commission agrees. They sent a letter to the legislative committee asking them to put Moab into one House district — like it is for the state Senate — to give it a louder voice on Capitol Hill.
“Sometimes our legislators do things for us out of the goodness of their heart, but they have no electoral reason to do us any favors,” said County Commissioner Kevin Walker. “They can easily win no matter how people in Grand County vote.”
Walker said Moab isn’t a big enough blue island to flip any of the Republican districts in southeast Utah, even if the city is made whole.
“No matter how they draw the districts, it’s going to be a Republican dominated state Legislature just because that’s what the population of the state is,” he said. “So I’m hoping that because the stakes are relatively low in that sense, that they can just draw districts that make sense for geographic reasons.”
Drawing districts can be difficult because they all have to have roughly the same number of people.
Moab was split in 2011, the last time the state drew its political maps. University of Utah Political Science Professor Matthew Burbank said there are a few possible theories why.
“Was it broken up simply because you needed to do that in order to get to just be about the same size, which is a perfectly plausible part of the line drawing process?” he said. “On the other hand, if people looked at that and said, ‘Aha, that’s mostly a democratic area. Let’s split it so that there are fewer Democrats in two districts as opposed to being more in one’ — then that has real partisan implications.”
Where does Moab belong?
One of Moab’s districts stretches west to Sevier County — a two and a half hour drive dotted with massive red rock bluffs and wide open washes.
Grand County doesn’t want to be lumped in with Sevier, and the feelings between the two counties are mutual.
Sevier County Commission Chair Tooter Ogden grew up there on his family’s dairy farm. He was at the redistricting committee meeting in the Richfield High School auditorium a few hours before the Moab meeting. He says Sevier is much more aligned with other nearby counties on certain issues like housing.
“We do a lot of work with the other commissioners in these other counties,” he said. “For example, we have to pool our money together to help with housing in these various areas.”
Richfield and Sevier County are also a lot more Republican than Moab and Grand County.
The Grand County Commission told lawmakers Moab should be put into a district with northern San Juan County. Van Wetter agreed.
“As anyone who lives here knows we are ostensibly the same town,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like you’re leaving town when you arrive in San Juan County, and we should be represented as such.”
Finding Moab a partner
When you cross from Grand into San Juan, you first encounter the Spanish Valley community — and it doesn’t even seem like you’ve left Moab.
But in order to create a district with the right amount of people, lawmakers would have to extend it further into San Juan.
The next two closest communities — La Sal and Monticello — are about 25 and 50 miles away from Spanish Valley, respectively. Monticello City Councilwoman Kim Henderson said in addition to being far away geographically, they are also really different from Moab and Spanish Valley.
“I feel like Moab very much likes the growth that the national monuments bring in and they promote that,” she said. “But as other rural communities, we’ve seen how that can negatively impact our community and we don’t want to follow suit.”
Monticello and the rest of northern San Juan County is also really red, both in terms of the sandstone and how they appear on a political map.
Legislative Redistricting Committee Co-Chair Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, said he’d like to put Moab into one House district but it’s too soon to tell what will happen.
“I think it is a very plausible idea,” he said. “But whether or not that fits in the population distribution in this corner of the state — it’s probably too early to try to determine that.”
The Legislature plans to hold a special session to pick the final maps in November.