Into The Lion's Den

Dr. Peter Morrison, right, handled sharp criticism directed towards his draft map with grace, and afterwards met with State Representative Larry Butler, center, to begin working on a second draft focused on the 2000 state representative districts in Waterbury.

Story By John Murray

   Dr. Peter Morrison performed a mini-miracle last week when his five-district presentation galvanized a fractured Waterbury to speak as one, unfortunately for Morrison, the two dozen speakers at the District Commission were unanimously opposed to the draft plan he presented.

   Politics in Waterbury can be a messy affair, and getting people to agree on anything is as frustrating as trying to escape from a Chinese finger trap. But moments after Morrison completed his presentation at the District Commission the public freed their fingers from the trap, clenched their hands into a fist and pulverized Morrison’s draft plan. Nobody liked it, and the public expressed their distaste with passion and conviction.

Morrison's first draft with the aldermen's name's written in by community activist Raechel Guest.

Dozens of community leaders came out to address the District Commission last week and they did so in a strong and united voice.

   Morrison has been hired by the city to analyze census data and draw the lines for five separate voting districts that Waterbury will use in November in an historic vote to elect aldermen by district. In a process that usually takes six months, Morrison had four weeks to develop his first draft and present it to the eight-person District Commission. In reconstructing what transpired last Thursday inside aldermanic chambers it’s clear that poor communication in the process, and an inflammatory article in the Republican-American newspaper, led an unsuspecting Dr. Morrison into a lion’s den, where he was understandably mauled.

   There are legal constraints that guide the process of drawing district lines, and the Federal Voter Registration Act protects minority populations that have historically been gamed in the process. Morrison’s first priority was to create voting districts in the core of the city that didn’t dilute minority voting strength, and would insulate Waterbury from possible lawsuits.

    He did that and sent the map to the city to be posted on the city website three days before the first meeting. This was a mistake. Both Morrison and Atty Daniel Casagrande (hired to guide the District Commission through the process) had publicly announced that Morrison would present three district maps to the District Commission on January 8th,  listen to input from the public and commission, and begin tweaking the maps.

   Instead of three maps on January 8th, the city received one map on January 5th and no explanation was given to the public. The map created by Morrison had given little consideration to neighborhoods or the three districts around the rim of the inner city because he needed input from the public and District Commissioners to bore down into the details. Morrison made a mistake, however, in trying to break up a logjam of incumbents in the Bunker Hill neighborhood by drawing a finger of one district into a tight cluster of popular Democrats, and sweeping one to safety. The reporter for the Republican-American, Penny Overton, found the map online and wrote a story about it on January 6th. The headline screamed that the first district plan favored incumbents and “Plan Would Save 3 Aldermen.”

   Conspiracy theories exploded across the airwaves of WATR radio and across social media. The process had been rigged, people protested, and this is “politics as usual.”

   The Rep-Am story ignited a firestorm of protest, but the reporter hadn’t spoken to Dr. Morrison and asked him to explain how or why he had drawn the lines. When the Observer reached Morrison by phone on January 7th he had a reasonable explanation – the first draft was simply a starting point and he was looking for feedback from the public before spending much time on the district lines outside the ones created to protect African-Americans and Hispanics.

   He said he had, “no dog in the race” and didn’t know who the aldermen were, what party they were from or who had mayoral ambitions. “They were all marked with a little star on the map and I had no idea who was who,” he said. With his casual attempt to solve an incumbency problem (which can be legally considered in drawing the lines) Morrison had smashed a stick into a hornet’s nest. The three little stars he had attempted to break up were the three top ranking Democrats on the Board of Aldermen, one of which will most likely be ousted in the aldermen by district process.

   “I had no idea,” Morrison said.

   Morrison’s map appeared to favor incumbent Democrats and cleaved neighborhoods like a deranged butcher, but all along he said his map was just a “starting point” for a community discussion. What Morrison got last Thursday night was his “starting point” transformed into an arrow point by an angry public, and Morrison was the bulls-eye. Speaker after speaker lampooned his plan as “ridiculous” and “silly”, and State Representative Larry Butler toyed with the idea of ripping up a copy of the map in Morrison’s face.

State Representaitive Larry Butler sharply rebuked Morrison's plan and imeediately offered a simple and common sense solution.

   Ironically, the bad communication from Casagrande and Morrison to the general public was a positive development for Waterbury. The speakers denounced incumbency as a criteria for drawing district lines and said the number one consideration was to retain the feel and identity of the unique neighborhoods in Waterbury.

   The District Commission agreed with the speakers and voted to give incumbency the lowest weight in the process, and voted to have Morrison begin his second draft with a plan submitted by Larry Butler that considered the five state representative voting districts established in Waterbury in 2000 (before Middlebury became part of the 71st District). Butler and District Commissioner Geoff Green had both submitted similar plans to Morrison back in December, but the demographer had yet to take the plans into consideration before hearing from the public.

Butler's plan is to to begin with the five state representative districts the city had established in 2000, and tweak from there.

   It was a wild and beautiful meeting last Thursday in City Hall when community leaders united to oppose a plan that wasn’t really a plan, and spanked Dr. Peter Morrison who had come before them to seek their input to craft a plan.

   Morrison re-enters the lion’s den tonight when he returns to the District Commission to present three district plans, including the one that favors starting with the old state representative districts from 2000. Hopefully Morrsion’s ideas will be better received tonight, but no matter what happens, the city should always remember and embrace the moment on January 8th, 2015 when city leaders spoke to denounce politics, celebrate neighborhoods, and did so in a clear and united voice.