SOUTH BEND – Back in early December, I described the Republican gerrymander in St. Joseph County as “a beautiful thing,” in political terms, for what it was designed to do. Any questions?
Q. Do Democrats still think it’s ugly, even with a possible negotiated agreement on some County Council districts?
A. Yes. Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Gerrymanders always are admired by the party drawing partisan districts, abhorred by the party that’s victimized.
Q. Has the St. Joseph County gerrymander turned out to be beautiful for Republicans?
A. Yes, in terms of advancing three main goals, although there are unintended consequences.
Q. What were the goals?
A. First and foremost for Republican Commissioner Andy Kostielney, redistricting plan author and up for reelection this year, was moving Jason Critchlow, a serious Democratic challenger, out of his district and giving it more Republican flavor.
Q. How did that go?
A. Critchlow, a former Democratic mayoral contender who amassed substantial campaign financing to challenge Kostielney, decided against moving his family to the newly drawn district and instead is running for township trustee. And the district has more Republican voters.
Q. Any unintended consequences?
A. Yes. With furor over the gerrymander creating so much heat and tension, Kostielney decided to step aside, not seek reelection.
Q. What was the second goal?
A. The gerrymander was designed to draw enough Republican voter strength in two of the three commissioner districts to give Republicans a solid chance to control the Board of Commissioners for a decade, until the next census.
Q. Any unintended consequences from that?
A. Yes. To draw two districts as strongly Republican as possible, Democratic precincts in South Bend were bundled into the 3rd District, surrendering it to a Democrat who could always be outvoted by the Republicans in the other two districts. That brought something Republican strategists couldn’t control.
Q. Like what?
A. Like the ire of Republican Commissioner Derek Dieter, left in that South Bend district to be surrendered. Dieter, thrown under the bus without warning, bounced back up, turning up heat that caused the bus driver Kostielney to vacate his seat.
Q. Couldn’t Republicans offer things to get Dieter to be quiet?
A. He says they tried. But they should have known he won’t be silenced. When Dieter served as a city council member as a Democrat, he wouldn’t kowtow to Democratic leaders. Nor now, as an elected Republican, will he be silent when the GOP tells him to stay quiet under the bus?
Q. How about the third goal?
A. That was to end the present power of the Democratic-controlled County Council to override a commissioner veto. The nine-member council now has six Democrats, the number needed to override. With three council districts nested in each commissioner district, the gerrymander also aimed at diminishing chances of six Democratic winners.
Q. Any unintended consequences in that?
A. Yes. Democrats hired an Indianapolis law firm to do battle with the Indianapolis law firm the Republicans had hired for the gerrymander. A suit filed by Democrats delayed agreement on council districts and threatened a drastic change, with all council members elected at-large.

Q. What’s happening with that?
A. Agreement apparently has been negotiated – though not finalized in votes or in court – for new filings for new council districts. It will be hard for Democrats to win six seats, but not impossible.

Q. Did Republicans move too hastily with gerrymandering?
A. No. They set the plan in motion a year before with a “technical” state legislative amendment stripping the County Council of its meaningful role in redistricting. A law firm was hired to assure a professional job. But a politically beautiful gerrymander can’t always guarantee total success or prevent unintended consequences. 

Colwell is a South Bend Tribune columnist.