GOP gets freer hand to redraw districts

Wins mean changes in political maps

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As Democrats try to claw their way back from historic losses, many of their state and federal lawmakers will be forced to battle over still more difficult political terrain.

In Pennsylvania and across the country, Republicans made dramatic gains not only in the closely watched congressional races but also in the state legislatures that will redraw most of the nation's political maps in the wake of the 2010 Census.

"Republicans are in the best position to redraw congressional maps in the modern era, since Baker vs. Carr in 1962," said Tim Storey, an analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, referring to the landmark decision that established the one-man, one-vote principle for redistricting.

Across the country, 21 legislative chambers switched to GOP control based on Tuesday's election results. Not one shifted to the Democrats. According to NCSL statistics, GOP representation in state lawmaking bodies is now at its highest point since the eve of the Great Depression in 1928.

Map redrawing to begin

In the Pennsylvania House, the Republicans' new majority is the largest either party has enjoyed since the Democratic modern high mark of 1976.

The collective results pave the way for a conservative tilt on issues across the board. As Mr. Storey noted, they also mean that Republicans will have the freest hand they have had in decades in drawing congressional and legislative maps calculated to favor their candidates.

With both chambers of the Legislature and the governor's mansion in Republican hands, Pennsylvania is one of 20 states where the GOP will be in total control of congressional redistricting next year. Democrats have similar monopolies in only 10 states.

The state constitution established a different process for legislative redistricting, designed to prevent any party from having unfettered control, but the Republicans have a potentially stronger position in that deliberation as well.

Each state must redraw its political map every 10 years.

For Congress, it's a two-step process. First, the Census Bureau reallocates the 435 congressional seats to reflect population shifts among the states.

Those numbers are due before the end of 2010 and are expected to dictate a loss of one of Pennsylvania's current 19 congressional districts.

More detailed population figures will be issued in the first quarter of 2011, allowing states to embark on the process of drawing the congressional and legislative boundaries.

In most states, that's a task left to legislatures, though in some, such as Iowa and California, panels designed to insulate the process to various degrees from politics are in charge. In Pennsylvania, the new Republican governor along with the GOP majorities of the House and Senate will hold unchallenged control of the new congressional map.

For the Legislature, on the other hand, the leaders of the majority and minority caucuses in the House and Senate each appoint one member to a reapportionment commission. Those four appointees then choose a fifth member to chair the panel.

If they can't agree on the fifth choice, the selection shifts to the state Supreme Court. That possibility was one of the subtexts of the last Supreme Court race in the state, as both parties worked to gain the majority with an eye toward next year's redistricting. The election of Justice Joan Orie Melvin gave the GOP a one-vote majority and the potential to tip the commission's balance.

"Neutral dispassion"

Recalling his tenure as executive director of the state's 1991 reapportionment commission, Ken Gormley, dean of the Duquesne University law school, wrote in a history of that panel, "The genius of the Pennsylvania system is that it blends old-fashioned political bartering and grass-roots wisdom with a healthy dose of neutral dispassion, vested in the chairman."

He was describing the process for state lawmakers' new districts. "Neutral dispassion" will be less prominent in the state's nakedly partisan congressional redrafting.

Republicans also controlled the Pennsylvania process the last time around, producing a map calculated to boost their Pennsylvania congressional strength for the 2002 elections and the decade that followed.

Republicans went into that process with a slim 11-10 advantage in the state's delegation. Despite the state's loss of two seats following the 2000 Census, the GOP ended up with a 12-7 advantage after the 2002 elections.

One consequence of that process was that the late Rep. John P. Murtha of Johnstown had to face off with his Democratic colleague, former Rep. Frank Mascara of Washington County, as parts of their districts were combined.

The districts of two other Democrats, Rep. Mike Doyle of Forest Hills, and former Rep. William Coyne of Pittsburgh also were essentially merged. Mr. Coyne's decision to retire headed off an intra-party battle for the seat.

Keith Schmidt, a Republican consultant who followed that process as an aide to former Sen. Rick Santorum, said he foresees a map that will renew the pressure on Democratic incumbents.

"If I was drawing the map, I would simply try to make Doyle's seat more Democratic," he said. "[Republicans] might win a city [of Pittsburgh] seat in some historic election, but you wouldn't keep it anyway.''

He noted that by packing Democratic communities into the Doyle seat, the 14th, and away from adjoining seats, the GOP could increase the chances for Republican candidates in those other districts, notably the 4th District seat Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, barely managed to keep Tuesday.

Critz's seat to vanish?

Mr. Schmidt speculated the 12th District seat held by Rep. Mark Critz, D-Johnstown, would be a likely target for the one the state will have to relinquish in reapportionment.

Robert Gleason, the state Republican chairman, said it was too early to assess where the new lines would fall but added, "They're working on it now. Obviously, we want to protect our people, but the important thing to me is that the process be fair and transparent.''

Referring to the 12th District, which includes his Johnstown home and snakes improbably through a handful of southwestern Pennsylvania counties, he said, "This district we have now where I am is terrible. That's the type of gerrymandering I don't favor at all.''

Noting that the 12th District had been represented by a Johnstown resident for generations -- Mr. Murtha for more than 30 years and Republican John Saylor before him -- he said, "Critz lives here but that may be coming to an end."

The congressional lines aren't likely to be finalized until late 2011, but among other Republican considerations will be an effort to draw districts that do as much as possible to enhance the re-election chances of their new lawmakers.

Republican Mike Kelly, the Butler auto dealer who defeated Erie's Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper in the 3rd District in northwest Pennsylvania, had a relatively comfortable win Tuesday.

But he lives in the extreme southern end of a district whose biggest population center is Erie and had been represented by Erie county residents for more than a quarter century. Republicans, therefore, have an incentive to shift more of their likely voters into that district.

In the northeastern part of the state, Republican Lou Barletta of Hazelton unseated a veteran Democrat, Rep. Paul Kanjorski of Luzerne County, in the normally Democratic 11th District. In another possible scenario, Republican map makers may be tempted to shift more heavily GOP communities in an effort to protect the freshman Mr. Barletta.

Mr. Gormley noted that while federal courts have been strict on enforcing the mandate for equal-size districts and vigilant against diluting minority representation in congressional maps, they have been relatively tolerant of maps drawn to maximize political advantages.

"Political gerrymandering is not generally justiciable," he said. "It's a lot harder for a party to be able to challenge just because they've been raked over the coals."

Population shifts

For the two state chambers, the reapportionment commission may at least temper that kind of partisan calculation. But populations shifts within the state overall will almost certainly mean some shift in legislative representation from the southwest to the faster-growing eastern part of the state.

In a 2006 article in the Pittsburgh Economic Quarterly, Chris Briem, an economist with the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Social and Urban Research, projected the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area area was on track to lose two or more state House seats in the coming redrafting.

The 1991 redistricting produced a similar shift along with an extended political and legal melodrama. The panel shifted an Allegheny County seat, the 44th State Senate District, to Chester County, while its occupant, former Sen. Frank Pecora, was in midterm in a district that was in Allegheny County's eastern suburbs when he was elected.

In a convoluted series of events, as Mr. Gormley recounts in his book on the commission, Mr. Pecora switched his party allegiance from Republican to Democratic and won the nomination for a newly drawn congressional district that overlapped much of his former state Senate seat.

Despite its Democratic registration edge, he lost in a stunning upset to Mr. Santorum.

Mr. Pecora then turned around and reasserted his right to represent the Chester County communities for the balance of his term, resulting in a string of litigation that ended with his retirement at the end of a rump term, representing unfamiliar constituents, none of whom had ever voted for him.


James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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