Allegheny County facing loss of 2 voting districts

Lawmakers review preliminary maps for reapportionment

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HARRISBURG -- The biggest question in the Capitol today will be a personal one to the 253 state lawmakers, as they look at new preliminary maps of legislative boundaries and ask, "Do I still live in my district?"

For most of them -- and for the majority of Pennsylvanians -- the once-a-decade process of redrawing the state's House and Senate boundaries to reflect population shifts won't drastically change their representation in Harrisburg.

But the significant population losses in the western portion of the state strongly indicate that at least one House and one Senate seat will vanish from Allegheny County, reappearing in the south-central or eastern areas of the state that have become much more densely populated.

State Rep. Chelsa Wagner's bid for county controller has put her South Hills seat on the list of those to be shipped eastward. On the Senate side, several familiar with the draft plans said freshman Sen. Jim Brewster, D-McKeesport, whose district lost the second-highest number of residents, is likely to see his territory doled out to surrounding districts.

Any changes, however, will require agreement among a majority of the five-member Legislative Reapportionment Commission. If the Republican and Democratic leaders haven't worked out their concerns, the commission's chairman could play a significant role in how the process goes forward.

"Fairness is our primary objective," said Bill Patton, spokesman for the House Democrats, who are expected to raise concerns at today's meeting.

The panel is made up of three western legislative leaders -- House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods; House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills -- as well as Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware; and former state Superior Court Judge Stephen McEwen as the commission's chairman.

If a preliminary legislative map is approved later today, it will be available for public comment for 30 days, said Erik Arneson, spokesman for Mr. Pileggi. A hearing on that proposed map likely will be held sometime in November, and the final version could be adopted anytime in December.

One motivating factor for approving that map sooner rather than later is that next year's primary election is in April, and in order to get their names on the ballot, political hopefuls will need to begin circulating nominating petitions in late January.

Regardless of where the lines are drawn, a court challenge is likely to be filed during the 30-day window after the final plan is approved.

Leaving additional time allows for any legal challenges to be sorted out without affecting the campaign calendar.

Lawmakers also must finish a map of new congressional districts by the end of the year. That process involves redrawing the 19 current congressional seats into a set of 18, due to Pennsylvania not gaining residents as fast as other states.

As observers review the proposed set of boundaries for the next 10 years, they'll be looking at how drafters did when it comes to causing the least disruption to municipal lines, groups sharing similar interests, incumbent officeholders and their political opponent's competitiveness, said Duquesne University Law School dean Ken Gormley.

Comparing the process to solving a jigsaw puzzle, he said having the two political parties' leaders working together while still trying to protect their own interests can result in districts that are reasonably fair to each side as well as to the voters.

"The goal is to try to resolve issues, rather than having a shoot-out at the O.K. Corral," said Mr. Gormley, who served as the Legislative Reapportionment Commission's executive director during the 1991 realignment. "The chair's role is to nudge them to do rational things."

He noted that looking at the districts of retiring members as the ones to potentially move can help in reaching consensus.

While several of the districts rumored to be rearranged belong to representatives who are either leaving the state House for local office or retiring from politics, another whose seat is expected to be drawn into a nearby district says he plans to still run if that's the case.

The 84-year-old Rep. Camille "Bud" George, D-Clearfield, is expected to see the seat that he's won 19 times move across the state to a locale like Allentown, York or Chester County.

He issued a sharp-tongued statement last week as whispers about the pending change grew, declaring that the plan would dilute his region's voice in Harrisburg and vowing to fight back.

Ms. Wagner, who represents a district largely made up of Pittsburgh's second-largest ward, could not be reached on Friday. But she voiced a similar concern about the possibility of that ward being distributed among nearby districts at a September public hearing, saying it would be "really, really harmful to residents."

As legislators await their geographical fates, some like Democratic Sen. Jim Ferlo cautioned that the process shouldn't be overdramatized, nor should all the talk about which districts will relocate be believed.

"Rumors of my political demise have been greatly exaggerated," said Mr. Ferlo of Highland Park, whose area saw the greatest population loss of any state Senate district.

"All of Western Pennsylvania has lost population. There has to be a shifting of geography," he said. "It's the reality of every decade."


Laura Olson: lolson@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254.


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