Philly Gains a House Seat in Redistricting Plan

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BY TONY WEST
For once, something good is coming out of the Pennsylvania General Assembly for Philadelphia. Popping a new winner in town even.

They can’t help it, actually. Try as they might, legislative majority Republicans were compelled to join with minority Democrats in the Legislative Reapportionment Commission to set new boundaries for State house and senate primary elections this spring. These boundaries will last for a decade.

MARK NORDENBERG, esteemed University of Pittsburgh scholar, chaired the 2021 Legislative Reform Commission.

The deciding vote was cast by Mark Nordenberg, esteemed former chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh – but a choice made by Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf, ensuring that its deliberations would be fair in general, but definitely fair to Democrats. Whom there are a lot of in Philadelphia; even more than the last time the Commonwealth was reapportioned, under total Republican rule, for 2012.

Since the 2010 Census, Philadelphia has seen a dramatic spurt in population, guaranteeing it would gain one state representative. Its adjoining suburban counties have been growing as well – and growing more Democratic as well.

These gains come at the expense of Republican counties, most of which lost population between 2010 and 2020. So even though rural Pennsylvania has grown more solidly Republican of late, it has fewer citizens. Brutal math, then, will send more lawmakers to Harrisburg from growing metropolitan areas in Southeastern Pennsylvania and fewer from the mountains and the west.

While Republican team players have issued complaints of partisan bias, the LRC was scrupulously professional in drawing maps that strove for equal population, geographical contiguity and racial diversity, even while doing minimal harm to incumbents. The preliminary map will be tinkered with but likely not rejected in the end.

A study conducted by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project in partnership with the Philadelphia Inquirer estimated that the proposed new House districts still maintain a 104-99 “tilt” toward Republican wins in the 203-member body. But that is far less than the edge Republicans now enjoy, which has made it impossible even to imagine a Democratic takeover in the House for the past decade.

In the State Senate, the study found the LRC’s map tended to deliver a 27-23 Republican majority.

Bitter Battles Foreseen on Lines, Dates

Although Pennsylvania is a purple state, with a close balance between Republicans and Democrats, a tilt toward Republican-majority districts is natural because masses of Dem votes are clustered in urban districts where Republicans are scarce, wasting their fire so to speak.

The Preliminary Reapportionment Plan was filed by the commission on Dec. 16. It has held two public hearings on these maps to date with more scheduled. By law there is a 90-day window for public debate before the revised final maps are decreed.

But both parties are under pressure to cut it short because the late arrival of 2020 Census data did not leave 90 days until candidates can start to circulate nominating petitions on Feb. 15. If extreme delaying tactics prevail, the May 17 primary should be pushed back so that people can find out the new boundaries of districts they may run in. For the pandemic primary election of 2020, this was done

But it is not a given. An alternative outcome is a crazed “lightning round” primary race in which hectic campaigners jostle to catch the ear of confused voters in unfamiliar districts.

Given today’s unproductive partisan animus, Republicans may contest the LRC maps in court to the bitter end. But they can gain little by stalling as the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is notoriously harsh on gerrymandering, especially on the right. And political operatives dread a later primary season.

The ultimate victory for the state GOP may be to jam up the electoral machinery in all 66 counties, thereby increasing glitches and errors in election work – and providing fuel for post-election charges of “fraud” – which could then be “investigated” eternally by Republican committees on Capitol Hill. Republican leadership has made no effort to acknowledge bipartisan pleas by county election officials to give them adequate time to prepare for an election, let alone fund the extra work demanded for perfect “integrity.”

Amen Brown Will Come Downtown

STATE REP. Amen Brown will inherit the new open seat in Philly, the 9th, leaving his old 190th District up for grabs.

Philadelphia’s new district is the 9th. It’s a refugee from New Castle, Pa., a faded steel town on the far side of the state along the Ohio border. It is currently held by a Democrat, State Rep. Chris Sainato, and will stay that way in its new home, along the north side of Market Street from Logan Square to 59th Street.

It will be inherited by a local incumbent, though: State Rep. Amen Brown, who currently represents the 190th District in West Philadelphia. He will be happy to take on the booming University City Science Center and a pricey slice of Center City, giving him a say in development and investment.

The portion of the 190th above Girard Avenue around Fairmount Park will be paired with Tioga and East Falls to create a district with a vacant seat. Who will take it? The 11th, 38th and 52nd Wards will be kingmakers here. Look for their leaders, Dwayne Lilley, Mark Green and Steve Jones, to powwow. State Sens. Vincent Hughes and Sharif Street may promote protégés. Congressman Dwight Evans will expect a candidate that is agreeable to him.

Observers place their bets on a North Philadelphian to get the party endorsement. The Working Families Party may intervene with a choice of its own.

Center City and environs in Northeast, North, West and South Philly have shown strong population gains. The 175th, 181st, 182nd, 186th, 188th and 191st all pulled in their boundaries toward the center, which they will share with the 9th.

This area will be a hotbed of progressive activism. Two incumbents, State Reps. Malcolm Kenyatta in the 181st and Brian Sims in the 182nd, aspire to statewide office – US senator and lieutenant governor respectively. Sims will quit his district, which is being hotly vied for by Deja Lynn Alvarez, Tyrell Brown, Will Gross, Jonathan Lovitz and Ben Waxman. Alvarez and Waxman are no strangers to the campaign trail.

State Rep. Mary Isaacson in the 175th is facing a challenger in Samm Pheiffer, a Planned Parenthood activist.

WILL STATE REP. Pam DeLissio be faced with a challenge from a fellow incumbent as a result of redistricting?

Two incumbents, State Reps. Pam DeLissio in the 194th and Chris Rabb in the 200th, may be thrown together in the new 194th. DeLissio will lose her original power base in Lower Merion and compete for Rabb’s base in Chestnut Hill and Mount Airy along with the remaining piece of the old 194th, Roxborough. DeLissio has been serving Roxborough and Manayunk since 2011 but with a long history of opposition from those neighborhoods’ power brokers.

But Rabb may not be able to charm them either. Both state reps have been standoffish toward Democratic City Committee, which is probably not sad to see the two pitted against each other.

The new 200th would be attractive to 50th Ward Leader Marian Tasco’s team, which narrowly lost a challenge to Rabb when he first ran in 2016.

Elsewhere, incumbents should fare well, although no one will be surprised if there are fights in the Northeast over state-rep seats. These may be sparked in part by jostling if either State Rep. Mike Driscoll or Ed Neilson tries to move up and take the State senate seat being left by retiring State Sen. John Sabatina, Jr.

Sabatina’s 5th District in the Far Northeast aside, the proposed Senate map poses few challenges for incumbents. Hughes’s 3rd District becomes more urban, losing Upper Dublin Township in Montco and gaining a sliver of West Mount Airy. State Sen. Nikil Saval’s 1st District gains more Fishtown while surrendering Fairmount and Spring Garden to State Sen. Sharif Street’s 3rd District and Girard Estate to State Sen. Anthony Williams’s 8th District.

State Sen. Christine Tartaglione’s 2nd District becomes less squiggly while remaining largely the same, including her home. It is a majority-minority target district for future campaigners, but she is well versed in her territory.

What’s Wrong with the Senate Map?

While hometown senatorial Dems may be at peace with this map, state leaders have a bone to pick with the LRC’s overall map. The problem is not partisan but geographical.

New Senate districts must come as close as possible to a population of 260,000 each. Only deviations of a few thousand are permitted. While the LRC does not favor any one district outrageously, it is striking that 14 of its 50 districts, clustered across the Southwest and Central mountains, all fall below the absolute average population. Southeastern districts, by contrast, tend to start out more populous than the average.

It is also a safe bet that these undersized Senate districts will continue to shed population in the coming decade, giving them increasingly unwarranted weight.

The result is that collectively, the growing part of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia and its neighbors) would lose half a senate seat to its rivals across the state. This is an outcome that citizens of both parties here should look askance on; State money spent between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh is money unavailable between Harrisburg and Doylestown. Perhaps we should have had the chancellor of Temple University chair the committee instead . . .

The deadline for public responses to the proposed reapportionment is Jan. 15. The coming week is crucial for those who want to adjust it.

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