City Weathers House Redistricting With A Few New Twists

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INFLUENTIAL State Rep. Dwight Evans stops to talk with David Thornburgh before a reception at Penna. Society. Dwight may have been smiling because his revised House District is a bit tidier than his current one. Photo by Bonnie Squires

BY TONY WEST/ As the final vote on General Assembly redistricting nears, Philadelphia’s new electoral boundaries look pretty clear. Our city was spared the bruising battles that are still playing out in Western Pennsylvania, where dipping population forced the loss of seats. Philadelphia’s numbers held stable for the first time since 1950, and that enabled its legislators to negotiate new districts that aren’t much different from their old ones for the most part.

Senatorial districts saw little change, just some swapping of border zones that left all incumbents more comfortable. None of our eight Senators is particularly old; they could all be in office in 2021. That might make for dull elections, but the city’s delegation will wind up with killer seniority in Harrisburg if it comes to pass.

In the House, new districts will make for livelier play in two hot spots:  North and Northeast Philadelphia.

The map had to change in North Philadelphia because of population loss. Change was made easier by State Rep. Jewell Williams’ takeover of the Sheriff’s Office in the 2011 Municipal Election. That left his 197th Dist. an orphan with no one to defend it from cuts. The new 197th is an ungainly T-shape, seldom more than four blocks wide, with few ties that bind its seven wards. It may be easy for Democrat Party leaders to plant their choice on the old 197th in the special election to replace Williams – but hard for the winner to hold it in years to come.

The new 197th, which will come into play in 2012, will be closely split between Blacks and Hispanics; there will be a push to elect a Hispanic.

To the north, State Rep. John Myers’ 201st Dist. was treated rather unkindly for a longstanding incumbent. If Myers, who is 64, wishes to retain his seat in 2012, he must do so with only a scrap of his Germantown fiefdom left. Half the new 201st is east of Broad Street, where no one knows him. It is awkwardly shaped and hard to service. Look for challenges here.

The Northeast didn’t lose population, but its House districts will undergo a revolution. The 170th, 172nd, 173rd and 202nd have been boldly redrawn, largely in ways that favor the bold, youthful and well-organized Northeast Democrat Caucus. Once a bastion of urban Republicans, that era may be over for the next decade, barring a political earthquake.

The old 172nd Dist., drawn in 2001 to protect GOP cleanup batter John Perzel, will be no more. Its Republican strongholds have been portioned off into useless bites in several districts. Incumbent Democrat State Rep. Brendan Boyle should have no trouble defending it.

Republican State Rep. Denny O’Brien’s 169th Dist. has also been split up; even its name was traded away to booming York Co. As O’Brien will enter City Council at Large in January, this district will disappear on Jan. 1. If a special election is held to fill this seat, it will be along the Mason-Dixon Line in York Co., not the Northeast.

The other Northeast Democrats – Kevin’s feisty brother Brendan in the 170th, Mike McGeehan in the 173rd and John Sabatina in the 174th – will all have much new territory to serve. But their new districts are fairly compact and easy to get around. They are psyched for the challenge because they believe their Party has demography and economics pushing for it across the Northeast. Sabatina would have had it otherwise, though, preferring his old district.

Democrat Mark Cohen’s 202nd Dist. is a remarkable case. Cohen is a string theorist: He loves a district that is long and skinny, with no rational community connections. The current 202nd is stringy; after 2012, it gets more so, about 60 blocks long and three blocks wide. His string is slowly shrinking away from Olney and probing into the Northeast. Cohen is a master of online communities, which may make him less dependent on geographical ones.

All news is not bad for Republicans, though. Some early reports stated Philadelphia had lost a district, but that’s not really true. State Rep. Thomas Murt, a Montgomery Republican who now has a couple of divisions in the Northeast, will see an important part of his 152nd Dist. move into Bustleton. He should have no trouble with his new constituents.

De facto, he will become a new member of the Philadelphia Caucus, giving State Rep. John Taylor (R-Kensington) a new ally to replace the many who have disappeared over time. (Taylor quietly picked up some nice real estate in the Lower Northeast which should give him another 10 years if he wants them.)

In quieter parts of town, new districts tend to favor incumbents. Pam DeLissio in the 194th shed inconvenient West Philadelphia turf which her colleagues Louise Williams Bishop in the 192nd and Vanessa Lowery Brown in the 190th badly needed due to population loss. Both Brown and Bishop will benefit from incorporating City Line into their districts. The 192nd, which now includes all of elite Black Wynnefield, will become a nursery for leadership in the next decade.West Philly’s Brown got rid of an awkward scrap of North Philadelphia which was hard for her to service.

In the 195th, North Philly’s freshman Michelle Brownlee reduced her exposure in West Philly by cutting back on her 6th, 24th and 52nd Ward divisions. Further north, Rosita Youngblood, who has faced some annoying challenges in an ungainly 198th Dist., got a new map that is more compact and more prosperous to boot. Dwight Evans in the 203rd should also shave a few points off his mileage expenses after 2012.

In South Philly, Ron Waters’ 191st Dist. pushed in from West Philly while Kenyatta Johnson’s 186th pulled back from the West. Since Johnson, like Williams and O’Brien, is also taking City office as Councilman in January, his district could have been bushwhacked, but it wasn’t. The 2012 district will be slightly less Black than the 2010 one is and it encompasses some choice hot real estate.  It will be a big deal to win this seat in the upcoming special election.

In Kensington, Angel Cruz’s 1780th Dist. will pick up valuable commercial activity in Port Richmond. Tony Payton’s Frankford district, the 179th, will be easier for the dynamic young legislator to tool around.

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