Port: Phony claims of gerrymandering are about as bad as actual gerrymandering

North Dakota's Democrats have tried this after-the-fact revisionism about redistricting before.

North Dakota's House chamber
North Dakota's House chamber in capitol building in Bismarck.
Forum File Photo

MINOT, N.D. — When I first read the headlines about Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, I thought to myself, "finally."

Not because I bear any ill will against Heckaman who, ideological differences aside, is an astute and competent lawmaker and, by all accounts, a very nice person to boot. Rare things in politics, these days.

No, I thought "finally" because Heckaman's retirement has been widely talked about in political circles for months now, much the same way everybody knew Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, was also going to be retiring.

They each got around to making it official just recently. In Heckaman's case, it's a reason why her legislative district was eliminated during redistricting.

Sen. Joan Heckaman
Sen. Joan Heckaman
Official photo

She's 75 years old, she's served in the Legislature since first getting elected in the 2006 cycle, and someone like that, who is already on the way to retirement, is easy to draw out in a redistricting process that's full of difficult decisions.


Only, now there's an emerging narrative suggesting Heckaman was pushed out for partisan reasons by the mostly Republican committee that redrew the legislative districts. "The former teacher did not directly accuse a Republican-led redistricting committee of partisan gerrymandering," Jeremy Turley reports in an article about Heckaman's retirement, "but she said the panel could have drawn the map in a way that kept her in the same district as the majority of her constituents."

Heckaman now says she would have run again had the lines been drawn differently. "She added it's hurtful that it wasn't her voters who decided to end her legislative career," Turley wrote.

There are a number of points to make about this situation, and none of them support the idea of gerrymandering.

Why didn't Heckaman make this argument back when the redistricting map was still being drawn? The legislature's redistricting committee worked on that map for months. The final draft was completed weeks before the November special session. There were committee hearings and floor debates on the map during the special session. Not once did Heckaman stand up and suggest anything untoward about the way her district was handled.

Also, plenty of Republicans were impacted why redistricting as well. Rep. Bill Devlin, R-Finley, was the chair of the redistricting committee and ended up in the same district as three other Republican members of the House, including Majority Leader Chet Pollert, pitting four incumbents against one another for two legislative seats.

Bill Devlin.jpg
Rep. Bill Devlin, a Republican from Finley
Official photo

District 26, which was home to Reps. Kathy Skroch and Sebastian Ertelt and Sen. Jason Heitkamp, all Republicans, was eliminated and all three were put into other districts with Republican incumbents.

Republican Sens. Howard Anderson and Shawn Vedaa got lumped into the same district.

Republicans Reps. Mike Beltz, Jared Hagert and Gary Paur were put into the same district to compete for two seats.


Rep. Jeff Magrum, another Republican, was put into District 8 with other Republican incumbents.

Valley City Republican Rep. Dwight Kiefert was put into a new district, where he's already announced he'll be seeking re-election .

I could go on but think you get the point.

Heckaman is insinuating that the Republican map-drawers were motivated by partisanship to push her out.

The truth is, far more Republicans than Democrats were impacted by redistricting.

And, hey, Heckaman could still run for elected office, just like all of those Republicans who were also moved into new districts. She hasn't been disqualified. She's now in District 14, which will be on the ballot again in 2024 (Sen. Jerry Klein, a Republican, is the incumbent there). She told Turley she may move to Dickinson now to be near family. If that's true, remember that Wardner's seat in District 37, which is on the ballot this cycle, is now open. It's unlikely that a Democrat like Heckaman is going to win in western North Dakota, but that's not a redistricting problem.

That's called "the will of the people."

North Dakota's Democrats have tried this after-the-fact revisionism about redistricting before. "Democratic Party officials noted that it's not the first time a Senate minority leader had been pushed into a precarious position by the redistricting process," Turley writes . "In 2011, mapmakers put then-Senate Minority Leader Ryan Taylor, D-Towner, in a district with another incumbent Democratic senator."


Taylor would opt not to run for re-election, instead challenging incumbent Republican Governor Jack Dalrymple in the 2012 gubernatorial race, a race in which he got just 34 percent of the vote. But in the 2011 redistricting process, much like in 2021, it was Republicans who were mostly impacted. Two NDGOP incumbents – Sen. Joe Miller and Sen. Curt Olafson – were put in District 10 together by the same committee, and three other districts across the state saw incumbent Republican members of the House pitted against one another.

Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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