REAPPORTIONMENT: Latest Map Bodes Squabbles, Suits

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BY TONY WEST/ The Reapportionment Com­mission released its preliminary map, Take 2, last week. This unprecedented upheaval in Keystone State politics stems from a sudden decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Jan. 25, 2012 which pitched out Take 1, saying lawmakers couldn’t cut too many curlicues into the districts they carve out for themselves to serve – and live from.

This came as news to lawmakers, who have been practicing this art since 1800 or thereabouts, as best they could. Drawing district lines to suit your interests or your faction’s interests is how the game is played. Chief Justice Ron Castile’s revolutionary ruling upset many incumbents’ applecarts. It made it harder for them to draw stringy or loopy districts linking communities with little in common, in order to help or hurt certain candidates.

Last week, the wounded legislature struck back, with a map that, while it bowed somewhat to the Supreme Court’s edict, defiantly asserted its right to gerrymander will endure. In the process, the General Assembly may have given us a glimpse of the sausage-making that goes into the very places we vote in – and whom we get to vote for.

Chief Justice Castile threw a hitch into gerrymandering, when incumbents go into a bipartisan huddle after every census and try to come up with new districts to protect incumbents – winners first, though. Siding against his own party with the four minority Democrat justices, Castile upheld the appeal of a Republican Committeewoman in Lehigh Co., Amanda Holt. She had come up with a map that used far fewer partitions of county, municipal or ward lines than the Legislative Reapportionment Commission’s 2011 plan, led by lawmakers, had. And her map was good with federal requirements for population balance and minority representation as well.

Holt was right, Justice Castile said repeatedly in his decision. He chucked out the plan crafted by the legislator-driven LRC and told them to do better. They needed, he wrote, to break up as few political boundaries as possible: favor whole counties over municipalities, whole municipalities over wards, whole wards over divisions. The idea is to keep communities together.

After foaming impotently for a month, the General Assembly tucked into the task with a grim will. The Take 2 LRC plan meets the Castile opinion about halfway. Holt’s map would reduce boundary-breaking by 50%; the new LRC plan would reduce it by 25%. Will 25% be enough for Chief Justice Castile? Stay tuned to this channel.

Let’s not make this out to be purely a lawmaker-vs.-judge bout. There may have been a judge-vs.-judge component too. The LRC weighed a plan drawn by a legislator, powerful State Sen. Dominic Pileggi (R-Chester), the Majority Leader, who is the only Southeastern Pennsylvania Republican in the top councils of state officials these days. Their team won the trifecta – Governorship, State Senate and State House – in 2010, and they did it without Philadelphia and its suburbs. These days, Pennsylvania is run by a mostly Western team.

But the LRC’s comeback plan this spring was drawn by another Delaware Valley Republican judge: Stephen McEwen, Jr. of Delaware Co., a retired solon who is well regarded by both parties in the southeast. McEwen’s new map is what the LRC finally went with. It poses implicit challenges to Chief Justice Castile’s ruling. And it stirs up a few hornet’s nests in Philadelphia.

The LRC will stage a 30-day public-review process for this proposed map followed by a final hearing. Backroom negotiations will be seething as well and may play a big role in Take 3, which is what Capitol Hill finally sends to the Supreme Court.

The first public hearing will be Wednesday, May 2 in Harrisburg. Any citizen or organization interested in providing comments at the hearing must submit a written request to do so.

Whatever that plan, opponents will challenge it in law, so the Supreme Court – in reality just one man, its unruly leader Castile – will decide if it went far enough.

One person who thinks it didn’t is plaintiff Holt, a piano teacher skilled enough at laying out facts to win a Supreme Court case.

Holt noted, “In Philadelphia, the approved preliminary plan continues to place seven senatorial districts in Philadelphia when population only requires six.”

In fact, after Castile’s ruling, the LRC counterpunched with a Senate plan in which more Philadelphia Senators would break county lines than before – four out of seven.

In the State Senate, “Pileggi’s plan split no wards in Philadelphia, while Mc­Ewen’s split four. McEwen’s plan, with these additional splits, was what they approved,” Holt noted.

Under the McEwen plan, some winners and losers emerge. In West Philadelphia, State Sens. Anthony Williams and Vincent Hughes have split the turf equitably so far, including that of University City – the richest concentration of “eds and meds “in Pennsylvania. But McEwen’s map transfers all University City – the 24th, 27th and 46th Wards – to Williams’ 8th Senate Dist.

In the Northeast, State Sen. Mike Stack’s 5th Dist. would stay close to its current boundaries while State Sen. Shirley Kitchen’s sprawling 3rd Dist. would become more consolidated in North Phila­delphia. But State Sen. Tina Tartaglione, in between in the 2nd, would lose half its current population, leaving her with a spindly district sprawling from her Kensington core into modish Fishtown as well as distant Abington Township in Montgomery Co.

Now begins a process of negotiation, mostly quiet. Kalisha DeVan, a spokeswoman for Hughes, commented, “There was general recognition that the map approved by the Reapportionment Commission last week was a preliminary map and that it was accepted as a vehicle to move the process forward. There is still a 30-day time frame for public input before a final map is approved, and it is generally known there will be significant changes across the entire City of Philadelphia. As this has been a very fluid process, with numerous maps showing all kinds of configurations, Sen. Hughes will wait until the final map is approved to make any further statements.”

Williams, for his part, voiced regrets of his own. “I like my old district,” he said. “I have the benefit of a very diverse district here, ranging from suburbia to the inner city, with pockets of affluence as well as some challenges. I have a high comfort level with it.”

JOINING State Sen. Anthony Williams at his birthday party were Darby Borough Council Members and Darby Borough Police Chief Robert Smythe, 2nd from right. Williams says he has "a high comfort level" with his current district. Latest LRC proposal, however, would cut into his colleague State Sen. Vincent Hughes' connections to Penn and Drexel. Photos: Paula Wright

J. P. Kurish, a spokesman for Tartaglione, said the Senator was “very surprised” at how she had been squeezed into Abington. “The Republicans are bound and determined to knock around the Dems,” he said. Kurish said the proposed district may meet “the letter, but not the spirit,” of Chief Justice Castile’s ruling.

“From my standpoint, the new map isn’t bad,” admitted Stack. “But I’m also interested in my colleagues’ happiness.” He said it was “crazy” how city districts had been pushed far into the suburbs. “If I can help by giving up some of what I’d be getting, I’ll be flexible,” he said.

The State House map is relatively orderly and peaceable – except in the Northeast, where odd new wrap-around districts would leave bitter feelings. The winner of Tuesday’s special election in the 169th Dist. – Democrat Ed Neilson or Republican Dave Kralle – would see his seat disappear next year, shifted to York Co.

The Boyle brothers – Brendan in the 170th and Kevin in the 172nd – appear to have gotten their way in the new map, at the expense of foes such as Ward Leader John Sabatina, Sr., whose son State Rep. John Sabatina’s new 174th Dist. sticks him with loads of unfamiliar new voters. Dan Collins, who is challenging Kevin Boyle in the 172nd primary, called it an “outrage” how the Mayfair neighborhood was split up.

STATE Reps. Brendan (left) and Kevin Boyle, shown here with Abington Township Commissioner Madeleine Dean pressing for transportation funding, have been working LRC to get a new State Rep map which favors them over State Rep. John Sabatina, Jr. and other rivals in NE Phila.

Republican State Rep. John Taylor’s new 177th Dist., on the other hand, would keep most of the changes he wanted. And State Rep. Mark Cohen would get a new 202nd Dist. which would remove him from the base of many of his opponents in North Philadelphia, including his 2012 primary challenger Numa St. Louis.

So much for whether politicians are satisfied. Will the law be satisfied? It is impossible to tell whether a map like this would pass muster before the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Castile has not commented on it yet.

The latest version of the Senate map causes more city Senators to cross county lines than before – four instead of three. Holt has shown a map can be drawn without any city-suburban Senate districts.

In the House of Representatives, the new LRC map keeps many more wards intact than before. But it still doesn’t beat Holt’s sample plan of 2011. Holt was able to draw a map which split only 16 wards into two districts. The LRC, on the other hand, would split 22 wards two ways, six wards three ways, and Elaine Tomlin’s unlucky 42nd Ward four ways. Ward leaders generally don’t like being chopped up by different State Reps.

Holt, the plaintiff, is also refraining from passing judgement at this time. But she is sticking to the principles of her original lawsuit.

“Our constitution must not be compromised,” she said Tuesday. “Political subdivisions should be split only if complying with another constitutional requirement makes it unavoidable, and for no other reason.”

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