Commentary: Big redistricting question – What’s a ‘community of interest’?

Redistricting is the No. 1 political issue right now, with the Legislature meeting in special session to draw new political boundary lines.

One of the key questions at the heart of the redistricting controversy is this: What is a community of interest? Communities of interest are supposed to be kept intact (in the same district) to the extent possible.

Some people appear to think that a community of interest is only geographical. They argue that urban Utah constitutes a community of interest and suggest, in particular, that Salt Lake City and its close neighbors ought not to be split up. After all, what could a resident of Salt Lake City have in common with someone in Scipio, or Yost (which is close to where I live)?

But I think a community of interest is more than just where you live. I’ve lived in Utah County, Washington County, Davis County, and Salt Lake City. I worked in downtown SLC for more than 40 years. Now I live in remote rural Utah. My interests haven’t changed much as I’ve moved from place to place. I loved living in the heart of Utah’s biggest city. I loved the suburban lifestyle where we raised our kids. I loved southern Utah. Now I love the remoteness of far northwestern Box Elder County.

Personally, I’d prefer a member of Congress to represent me who has the interests of all of those places at heart. Most rural and suburban folks feel a kinship to Salt Lake City, our state capital and the heart of business and commerce. Most urban/suburban folks love rural Utah. They camp, hike, fish, hunt, sightsee, and attend rural celebrations. Wasatch Front residents live in Utah, in part, because of easy access to rural Utah. 

Most rural families have children and other family members in urban/suburban areas. I’m concerned about highway congestion and air quality along the Wasatch Front even though I live far away. Big banks and credit unions have branches in towns and small cities throughout the state. Other urban businesses seek to attract rural shoppers. Rural businesses, especially those involved with recreation, seek to attract urban customers.

Communities of interests are intertwined across the boundaries of cities and counties.

One could argue, of course, that the very progressive views of Salt Lake City residents constitute a community of interest. But if a district was carved out to serve that community, that would be redistricting to meet an ideological or political agenda – which I thought was supposed to be a no-no. 

Believe me, the liberal activist groups who are loudly protesting the legislative maps aren’t nearly as concerned about communities of interest as they are about ensuring Democrats get one congressional seat. This activity has national ramifications. In Democratic states, Democratic legislatures are seeking advantage. In Republican states, Republican legislatures are seeking advantage.

Democrats know they risk loss of control of the House of Representatives next year. If they can get a Democratic seat in Utah, that’s a big win.

Of course, no matter how boundaries are drawn, urban/suburban Utah will always dominate Utah politics and congressional districts. That’s simple reality. Utah is one of the most urbanized states in the country. Unless legislators created one gigantic rural district encompassing almost the entire state, with three tiny islands in the middle, districts will always be dominated by urban and suburban residents, with much smaller rural components (by population).

So, members of Congress will always have interests of urban/suburban Utah in mind as they represent their constituents. But it’s also nice for them to at least represent some rural folks and pay attention to issues outside the Wasatch Front.