GOP map for new districts unfair, critics say

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HARRISBURG -- For 31/2 hours, critics stepped to the microphone to attack Republican-drawn reapportionment maps of state House and Senate districts, claiming they are unfair, "manipulated and gerrymandered" for partisan reasons, needlessly complicated, unconstitutional due to splitting up too many municipalities and almost certain to be challenged in court.

The attacks at a hearing here Friday came from Democratic legislators -- including two who sit on the Legislative Reapportionment Commission -- plus longtime civic groups such as Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, officials from Allegheny, Somerset and Dauphin counties and municipalities in suburban Philadelphia, and an ad hoc group of dissidents, Occupy Harrisburg, who delayed the start of the hearing for 40 minutes with loud chants and shouts about "unfairness."

Lora Lavin, a league official, said a lot of legislative districts seem "to have been redrawn for the sole purpose of protecting the re-election prospects of incumbent legislators."

Several speakers from the Mon Valley -- including Rep. Bill Kortz, D-Dravosburg, and McKeesport pastor the Rev. Darrell Knopp -- said the plan to move Senate District 45, now represented by Democratic Sen. Jim Brewster, to eastern Pennsylvania would damage the economic recovery of the long-struggling McKeesport area.

"He has created momentum that is critical to the future of McKeesport and the Mon Valley, which have suffered," Rev. Knopp told the five-member Reapportionment Commission, which is close to final approval of the new House and Senate district lines. "He is a man who makes things happen, and we can't afford to lose his service."

Mr. Kortz added, "Sen. Brewster has been a champion for the Mon Valley for decades," including being the former McKeesport mayor. "To move this seat now to eastern Pennsylvania will take away a key leader at a critical rebuilding time in this region."

Because of population losses in southwestern Pennsylvania, the preliminary redistricting plan would move the Brewster district from southern Allegheny County to Monroe County, on the state border with New Jersey, an area that has gained population in the last 10 years.

The preliminary plan also moves the Beechview-based House district represented by Rep. Chelsa Wagner across the state to Allentown in the Lehigh Valley. She wrote a letter to the panel protesting that move. The new district plan also combines two Democratic incumbents, Reps. Nick Kotik and Jesse White, into the same district consisting of parts of Allegheny and Washington counties. Mr. Kotik's district is being moved to York county, which has had a growth in population.

Two Republican legislators on the panel, Senate majority leader Dominic Pileggi of Delaware County and House leader Mike Turzai of Bradford Woods, defended the maps, saying they are required to reflect population changes over the last 10 years -- declines in the southwest and gains in the east and southeast.

They said that under the "one man, one vote" rule, populations of House districts must be roughly the same, about 60,000 people, and Senate districts must have about 250,000 people.

"There is no validity to the suggestion that partisan performance was the driving factor behind the preliminary plan," Mr. Pileggi said.

But Senate Democratic leader Jay Costa of Forest Hills, also a panel member, strongly disagreed, charging that the GOP maps needlessly divide too many communities with common interests, thus violating that constitutional provision that municipal splits are warranted only when "absolutely necessary."

He said the maps are unfair to the state's 4 million Democrats, who significantly outnumber the 3 million registered Republicans. He said the Senate is now controlled 30-20 by Republicans and the newly drawn districts will give GOP candidates an unfair advantage in 14 of the 19 current districts that are considered a tossup.

The preliminary redistricting plan was approved two weeks ago by a 3-2 vote (Mr. Pileggi, Mr. Turzai and Chairman Stephen McEwen in favor and Mr. Costa and House Democratic leader Frank Dermody of Oakmont opposed). Mr. Dermody complained it will "result in a major disruption to dozens of traditional communities and neighborhoods in Allegheny County."

Other harsh criticism came from officials in Cumberland and Dauphin counties, which border Harrisburg. Democrats are unhappy about the new shape of Senate District 15, represented by retiring GOP Sen. Jeffrey Piccola. It removes the Democratic stronghold of Harrisburg from the district and lumps in parts of five other counties where Republicans live, in order to make up for the loss of city residents.

The new district is oddly shaped, resembling a large C, or a sideways horseshoe, and is "badly gerrymandered to achieve [political] gain for Republicans," Mr. Costa charged.

Democratic legislators from southeast Pennsylvania said towns like Haverford and Upper Darby are having Democratic voters unfairly moved into already-heavily Democratic Philadelphia, to make several House districts more Republican and give GOP candidates an edge.

The start of the hearing was disrupted for 40 minutest by two dozen young protestors from Occupy Harrisburg, who shouted, "This hearing is unjust and ineffectual. We petition for a redress of grievances." As they clapped loudly and raised their voices, they said, "This is what democracy looks like. We are the 99 percent. We want a real hearing."

Committee members waited for the protestors to leave, which they finally did, shouting, "Have a great day."

The committee will hold another public hearing on the preliminary redistricting plan on Wednesday and then vote in early December on the lines of the new House and Senate districts -- which are important because they'll be in effect for the next 10 years.

Democrats have said a court challenge is likely unless the panel makes major changes to many districts. The final district maps must be ready by late January so candidates who want to run for House and Senate seats in spring 2012 know what the boundaries are.


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