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Friday, Apr. 29, 2016

Arkansas redistricting sets up incumbent vs. incumbent contest

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The map, passed Friday, July 29, approving new boundaries for Arkansas House districts has put two area legislators in a tough spot.

They are friends who will wind up running against each other.

"I did not know Linda (Collins-Smith) before we were elected, but we have become friends and colleagues," said State Representative Lori Benedict. "We will campaign against each other, but we will have lunch together tomorrow."

Benedict, a Republican who lives in Salem and represents all of Fulton County and part of Baxter County, was elected in November 2010.

Representative Linda Collins-Smith, a conservative Democrat who lives in Pocahontas and represents Sharp and Randolph Counties, joined Benedict at the state capitol in January as freshman legislators.

"We have spent a lot of time together and gotten to know each other because we share conservative values, face similar issues in our districts and, in most instances, vote the way our constituents want us too," said Benedict.

The two will have to run against each other in 2012 because of the 2010 Census. State legislative districts had to be redrawn to reflect population changes the census identified.

The job was up to the Arkansas Board of Reapportionment, which is made up of the Governor, Secretary of State and Attorney General.

Changes in district lines are supposed to make each district about the same size in population, while not "gerrymandering" lines to give a political advantage to one party or another.

"The new map definitely gives the appearance of a politically redrawn map to pit two conservatives against each other, so that only one survives," Benedict told The News.

She was commenting on nearly identical maps proposed by Governor Mike Beebe and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, the two Democrats on the board.

The map proposed by Secretary of State Mark Martin, a Republican, kept Benedict and Collins-Smith in separate districts, next door to each other.

The District 61 maps proposed by the Democrats blend Benedict's and Collins-Smith's districts. District 61 will now include all of Fulton County, two pieces of Sharp County and a big hunk of Randolph County, requiring Benedict and Collins-Smith to fight it out at the polls.

The Reapportionment Board, which took its final vote in Little Rock, approved Governor Bebee's map by a two to one vote.

As expected, the Democrats on the board, voted for their map, while Republican Martin voted against it.

Benedict did not travel to a final public hearing in Little Rock on July 25, to express her displeasure.

"I didn't go because their minds are made up. They have been taking public comments to put on a face of being open to suggestions, but their minds are made up. They have drawn the lines to politically benefit them and their personal agendas," said Benedict.

Besides being unfair to two incumbents, Benedict claims her new district is unfair to the counties involved.

"It is definitely not in the best interest of counties to be split up in pieces," said Benedict. "It makes it harder for counties to get help on issues and it makes it harder for citizens to know who their representative is."

Bebee defended the map that was approved, saying it is impossible to please everyone.

"It's a process, that every 10 years you've got folks that are happy and folks that are unhappy, depending on how their particular situation ends up," said Bebee.

The approved map requires five House Democrats as well as eight Republicans to face incumbents to be re-elected.

The Senate redistricting left area Senator Missy Irvin, a Republican, with the largest number of counties to represent.

"I've been told my new district is 172 miles long," said Irvin, who lives in Mountain View and currently represents six north central counties including Fulton, Sharp, and Izard counties.

Her new district gives her nine counties, beginning in Fulton County and extending south, all the way to Faulkner and Cleburn Counties.

"I tried to make the case that my current district should remain intact," said Irvin. "It was within the legal requirements as far as population. "I lost only 2,000 constituents in the Census and my district is made up of rural communities with similar issues and needs. But the process was partisan, as Democrats tried to draw districts so they can keep their majority in the Senate."

Irvin said all but one of the new counties she is getting are currently represented by Republicans and she believes she will be re-elected in 2012. But, according to Irvin, the new district is not fair to its constituents.

"It will be hard to represent so many counties over such a large area," said Irvin, "but I will work hard to serve all the citizens in the district, as I do now. I just hate that the people will be shortchanged, because how partisan and political the process was."

As for her new district, Benedict feels she has an edge because, "Sharp and Randolph are not necessarily Democrat-held counties. They are very conservative. That is probably why she (Collins-Smith) has leaned toward more conservative issues."

Benedict believes the Governor and Attorney General are punishing Collins-Smith, making her run against a fellow incumbent, for not strictly following the Democratic Party line during the 2011 legislative session. Representative Collins-Smith could not be reached for comment.

"I don't see the new district a disadvantage to me at all," said Benedict. "I don't like the idea of pitting two conservatives against each other, but I don't feel it is a negative to me."

As for running against Collins-Smith, Benedict expects a spirited but clean campaign.

"We'll stay friends no matter what happens," Benedict predicted.



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