GOP heavy hitters plunge into redistricting battle
by Briana Bierschbach
Published: September 28,2011
Time posted: 3:36 pm
Tags: Chris Georgacas, Elizabeth Brama, Eric Magnuson, Erik Paulsen, Gregg Peppin, Jack Meeks, Kathleen Blatz, Matt Haapoja, Michael Brodkorb, Michael Wilhelm, redistricting, Stev Knuth, Tom Emmer, Tony Trimble
Minnesotans for Fair Redistricting marshals legal, fundraising talent
There’s a sense of aplomb among Minnesota Republicans when they talk about their prospects for coming out on top in this decade’s redistricting process.
And why not? All legal and political intrigues aside, the redistricting map for 2012 — which is expected to be finalized in late February — will certainly benefit Republicans, owing to the substantial population growth in GOP-leaning suburban districts over the last 10 years.
“Redistricting is certainly a contact sport,” Michael Brodkorb, the Senate communications head and lead on redistricting for the GOP Party, said. “But we feel good because population and demographic trends are on our side.”
But Republicans say their confidence also flows from the team they have lined up in the upcoming redistricting court battles. Republicans are aligning their efforts behind Minnesotans for Fair Redistricting, a group that boasts longtime GOP money men like Jack Meeks, top Republican attorneys like former Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson and GOP operatives like Gregg Peppin as they try to persuade a five-judge panel to draw a map similar (or possibly identical) to the one Republican legislators created and passed out of both chambers in the 2011 session.
In Brodkorb’s view, the group of Republicans behind the effort is “the political equivalent of the ‘Dream Team’ basketball team that won the Olympics in 1992,” he said. “We really could not have a better group.”
Republican bigwigs get the ball rolling
This is round three of redistricting for Meeks, head of the Walker Group, board member of the Freedom Foundation and all-around GOP bigwig. This year Meeks is one of three founding members of Minnesotans for Fair Redistricting, and he has led their efforts in raising money and hiring attorneys for the upcoming battle.
That role is similar to the one he has played in the past. During the 2002 redistricting process, Meeks also served as the Republican Party’s appointee to then-Gov. Jesse Ventura’s redistricting committee. He was a Republican National Committee member at the time.
Meeks is the most reserved among Republicans about the group’s chances in court.
“You can never predict these things or how the outcome is going to be,” he said. But he acknowledges that favorable demographic changes will work in their favor. “If we have a totally fair redistricting process,” he said, “it’s going to benefit Republicans because of where the growth of population has been.”
Joining Meeks as founding committee members are former Republican Party Chairman-turned-lobbyist Chris Georgacas and PR pro Steve Knuth. Knuth is the founder and head of the Public Affairs Co., a GOP shop that has grown by leaps and bounds in the last several years. Last fall, Knuth was tapped as former gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer’s finance chairman. Despite the fact that Emmer’s fundraising effort was seen as lackluster, Knuth is considered an emerging money guy in GOP circles.
Georgacas has three decades of GOP political involvement at all levels under his belt, including political director to two U.S. senators and two terms as head of the Republican Party of Minnesota. By all accounts, Georgacas has both the connections and fundraising chops to help the group pull in dollars for their effort.
“They’re going to have no problem raising the money they need to pay the legal fees,” one GOP operative said this week.
GOP legal heavyweights sign on
The legal bills that could come out of this affair shouldn’t be minimized. The effort has pulled in some of the top — and most expensive — GOP attorneys in the state. Three lawyers from Minneapolis/St. Paul law firm Briggs and Morgan have filed as “attorneys of record” for the group and its eight Republican citizen petitioners in state and federal court. Magnuson, who has worked on high-profile cases like the gubernatorial recount and the shutdown petitions since leaving the bench, will serve as the lead attorney, with lawyers Elizabeth Brama and Michael Wilhelm also assigned to the case.
Brama has an advantage that most attorneys don’t in working on redistricting. During the last round in 2001-02, Brama worked for the Minnesota courts, serving as legal counsel to the five-judge panel that drew the maps. Brama advised the panel on law and demographic issues relevant to redrawing the districts. She also helped draft redistricting plans and analyzed potential and final district maps.
Brama earned her law degree from the University of Minnesota and worked for Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz after graduation. Brama said the judges have “a difficult job ahead of them,” but she “feels pretty positive” about their chances.
The troop of attorneys would not be complete without the assistance of GOP legal heavyweight Tony Trimble. Trimble has been a go-to attorney for the GOP for decades, most recently working with Emmer on the gubernatorial recount. He will also bring on associate Matt Haapoja, who has served as the Republican Party of Minnesota’s general counsel and worked on the U.S. Senate recount battle in 2008. Both Trimble and Haapoja worked on the GOP redistricting legal team in 2001-02.
Caucus has role in defending maps
While the GOP attorneys working with the group are maintaining a right to develop their own map, attorneys like Magnuson have told Capitol Report that their intent is to defend the map legislators passed during the session. Any diverging map produced by the group would likely be similar to the caucuses’ maps, and several key members of the group say they are consulting with House and Senate staffers as they move through the process.
“The caucuses certainly are aware of the group and have been supportive,” Brodkorb said. The Senate’s lead GOP staffer on redistricting is Adam Axvig, while Dax Bennett and Tom Freeman are working on the maps in the House.
Peppin, one of the eight Republican petitioners in the case, is also a former caucus staffer on redistricting. In the 1990s, Peppin served as the redistricting committee administrator for then-Rep. Erik Paulsen. Peppin enjoyed the process so much that he told former House Speaker Steve Sviggum that if GOPers held control of the House during the next round of redistricting, he wanted to be involved in drawing the maps. Republicans tipped over into the majority in 1998, and Peppin was brought on the redistricting team a few years later.
This year, Peppin feels confident in their chances, especially since Democrats seem to be behind the curve in the process now that they are out of the majority. DFLers did not push an alternate map during the session. (Peppin said he has heard that DFLers are now conferring about developing a map.)
“Maybe there was a strategic reason they didn’t do it during session, but short of that, it would seem like a tactical blunder not to have something to show for it,” Peppin said. “Ten years ago they took pieces from each map. The judges said we will take this line from the Republican map and this from the DFL map.”