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Redistricting of area counties could see Native Americans gaining strength

The court-ordered redistricting plan issued last week could lay the foundation for the election of a Red Lake or Leech Lake band member to the Minnesota Legislature.

The Supreme Court, given the redistricting chore after realizing the Legislature and the governor would not agree to political jurisdiction boundaries, did perhaps the greatest reshuffling of legislative districts involving the Bemidji area and the western Iron Range area. The end result could bode well with the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party by including entire American Indian reservations within legislative districts.

Interesting is a realignment of House 2B into a new House 2A. House 2B current Rep. Dave Hancock, R-Bemidji, will see a totally new landscape should he seek re-election. Hancock in 2010 beat Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids. Republican Hancock was a surprising winner as the Red Lake Reservation, which usually votes 90 percent or more for Democrats, has pushed Democratic candidates over the top with last-minute vote tallies on the reservation. The old 2B included counties with more conservative leanings, but are not in the new 2A.

The new district seems set up to put a Red Lake Nation candidate into the Legislature as it is the population center of the district. The district is long and narrow, with a number of Hubbard County cities such as Laporte, Akeley and Emmaville, but not Park Rapids, which was a major population for District 2B. The district includes Clearwater County and Bagley. House 2A is west and north of the Bemidji city limits, running north to County Road 22 then east. It does not include Blackduck, as the former House 2B did, but Kelliher will be in 2A.

Hancock will lose Republican precincts to the west and southwest. He gains a relative rural liberal area to the north. He will face a tough time in gaining re-election in House 2A. With Red Lake the focal point of the new district, the American Indian population will amount to 18.3 percent of district residents, and a total minority percentage of 20.6, meaning one in five voters will be of minority races, which tend to vote Democratic. It means Hancock will have to appeal to independent voters in order to succeed, plus hopes of a low voter turnout on the reservation.

Actually the new District 5A, which will include Bemidji, may have an even greater chance of sending American Indians to the Legislature this year, should Rep, John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, who carries the Leech Lake Tribal Council endorsement, not seek re-election. The new House 5A also includes Walker, which then pits Persell against Walker Republican Rep. Larry Howes. Howes is the dean of local legislators, and this might seem the right time to retire rather than face an election in a redefined district that includes a large city that does not know much of him and the entire Leech Lake Reservation.

Howes, now the House Capital Investment chairman, may not fare well in Bemidji if voters remember his opposition to state bonding for the Sanford Center. However, some voters may like him precisely for doing that. But the new district goes farther north and east of Highway 2, including rural pockets of population but no major cities other than Blackduck.

Persell would be seeking a third term and is one of the few local legislators to survive the Republican onslaught of 2010. But with the inclusion of the entire reservation and a DFL-indexed area which leads east toward the Iron Range, Persell has to have the edge.

House 5A includes an American Indian population of 19.5 percent of the district. Total minority population of the district is 23.1 percent, with nearly one in four voters representing a minority race - a figure even higher than in House 2A.

First-term Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, also will find tough sledding in a re-election bid as his new district includes Grand Rapids and beyond to Warba. It also moves north and east onto the Iron Range, including Taconite.

Carlson would be forced to compete against Sen. Tom Saxhaug, the popular Democrat from Grand Rapids. The argument could easily be made that the American Indian vote in Senate 5 could play an important role in either reaffirming Saxhaug or in proffering an American Indian candidate.

Whoever wins will find it interesting and challenging to virtually split time and effort between Bemidji and Grand Rapids, two strong northern cities that know how to use the Legislature to improve their communities. The new senator could be run ragged, running from one end of the district to the other to gain input from officials and citizens of each strong community.

At any rate, candidates should soon be emerging and incumbents eager to return home to meet the citizens of these newly aligned districts.

Brad Swenson retired after more than three decades with the Pioneer. He was the newspaper's award-winning Opinion page and political editor. He can be reached at bswenson@