Stowe’s population increased by nearly a thousand people over the past decade, and that increase may mean some growing pains when it comes to the town’s representation in Montpelier.
For about two decades, Stowe has been an island unto itself, the rare case of a lone legislator representing a single town in the House. Now, as the state prepares to re-write Vermont’s legislative map, the single-town house district is certain to change — and could be sliced up.
“Stowe is too big to be a single-member district and Stowe and Morrisville put together are too big to be a two-member district,” Rob Roper, a member of the seven-person Legislative Apportionment Board, and a Stowe resident, said this week. “It would be unconstitutional. There would be too many people.”
The board, made up of members from all three of Vermont’s political parties, is tasked with coming up with a new legislative district map for the state, which the Legislature will approve in the next session.
Rep. Heidi Scheuermann was first elected to represent Stowe in 2006.
She knows the tidy lines of her district aren’t going to be the same come the next election, and she thinks that’s not going to be popular with her constituents.
“It’s great to see our community growing the way it is, and see young families raising their kids here,” she said. “But I know it’s going to be hugely disappointing for me and it’ll be disappointing for our community.”
Roper, president of the conservative-leaning Ethan Allen Institute and the Vermont Republican party’s appointee to the apportionment board, said when it comes to district lines that carve a town into two or more districts, the board would prefer to do it along logical lines.
The priority is to adhere closely to town lines, followed by school district lines, and then geographical features, like rivers and mountain ranges.
In Stowe’s case, that could mean lumping all or part of the town with part of Morristown or Waterbury. Roper said it could ostensibly pair part of Stowe with Cambridge, but that wouldn’t make sense because the road connecting the two, Route 108 over Smugglers Notch, is closed half the year.
Since Stowe is already part of the same school district as Morristown, Roper said it seems likely Stowe’s district dividing line would be somewhere in the northern part of the town, rather than south, toward Waterbury.
“We don’t want to slice up towns, but here we have an example where it very well could happen,” Roper said.
Scheuermann said she could see arguments for Stowe to be paired with either. On one hand, she said many people think the town is more economically aligned with Water-bury, also a bustling tourist town.
On the other hand, Stowe shares more cultural and educational ties with Morristown, and that’s where most people go for the myriad social services offered by the neighbor to the north.
She said it would be bittersweet to not have all of Stowe tidily represented by one person, and she doesn’t envy the job Roper and the apportionment board have in front of them.
“Poor Rob!” she said. “But I’m so glad that he took it on.”
Roper is one of two board members who were involved in the last re-districting, after the 2010 census. Tom Little, the board’s chair, or special master — the representative to the board appointed by the Vermont Supreme Court’s chief justice — is the other. So, he knows the political battle has just begun.
“I’m convinced that I’m going to be run out of town no matter what happens,” he said, laughing. “Because Stowe is going to split. Split or be joined, and a lot of people aren’t going to be happy, no matter what.”
Roper and Scheuermann are in favor of the new House map featuring 150 single-member districts, rather than having a mix of one- and two-person districts. In Lamoille County, there are two multi-town, multi-rep districts — one lumping Morristown, Elmore, Worcester and Woodbury together, and the other featuring Belvidere, Johnson, Hyde Park and Wolcott.
A survey put out by the apportionment board seems to suggest Vermont residents also favor single-member districts — nearly 75 percent when given a choice for House representation.
Scheuermann said drawing the map so there are 150 single-person districts would ensure “Vermonters have the representation they deserve.”
She said there hasn’t been as much talk of the G-word — gerrymandering — in Vermont in the past couple of census years and thinks Vermont does things less politically than other states. Coincidentally, Scheuermann this week was visiting family in North Carolina, a state almost synonymous with gerrymandering.
However, Democrats aren’t on board with the single-member approach, according to Scott Weathers, a Stowe resident and new head of the county Democratic party.
“Republicans have really been cynically arguing for single-member districts because they want to make Democratic incumbents lose their seats,” Weathers said. “We just think this approach doesn’t work at all.”
He said Democrats have a dim view of the survey, saying it was addressed mostly to Republicans.
Weathers said the state tried the approach a few decades ago and it produced “highly unrepresentative results,” where cities like Burlington ended up with the same representation as much smaller towns.
Weathers agreed, however, that the so-called “six-pack,” the half-dozen Chittenden County senators, must be broken up.
“This obviously has large consequences for our elections,” Weathers said. “The important thing is the process is fair and transparent and there’s opportunity for members of the public to provide comments and feedback.”
‘Fast and intense ride’
In a June 21 commentary updating progress on the process, the Legislative Apportionment Board wrote, “Get ready for a fast and intense reapportionment ride. Between now and September, the board is collecting as much data and public input as it can in order to be able to make good decisions very quickly about how to fairly deal with our new demographic realities.”
That’s certainly rang true, Roper said.
“Putting together this map is like squeezing a balloon,” he said. “Wherever you squeeze one part, there’s something that pops up somewhere else.”
Roper said individual board members have been busy since the census data came out drawing maps on their own time, using either the state’s supercharged Maptitude software or a more slimmed-down — and easier to use — program called District Builder, leaning on the secretary of state’s IT experts for help when necessary.
He’s building his map with the goal of 150 single-member districts, but it’s a bit like solving a Rubik’s Cube, where you think you’ve got it, but end up a few squares short. He said he had one map almost finished, but he ended up with only 149 districts — one shy.
With a deadline looming next week, Sept. 27, at the board’s next meeting, when everyone will share their maps, the amateur cartographers have been fast and furious with their renderings.
“It’s really time consuming,” he said. “It’s like playing a video game. I mean, you start playing with these maps and you look up, and then, all of a sudden you look up and its six hours later.”