GOP to be more protective during redistricting
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WASHINGTON -- A decade ago, Republicans controlled both houses of the Pennsylvania Legislature and the governor's mansion, wielding power to redraw the state's congressional districts to their benefit after the 2000 census.
And it backfired.
Once again, Pennsylvania will lose a seat in the House following the 2010 census, giving Republicans the reins to redraw the state from 19 districts to 18. And they are vowing not to repeat the mistakes of 2001-02 and protect the 12 seats currently inhabited by Republicans rather than reach for more.
"The last time, the Republicans, in my opinion, erred. We were much too aggressive," said Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Lancaster, the longest-serving Republican in the Pennsylvania delegation and thus the de facto leader of redistricting efforts from D.C.
"We're not going to be overly aggressive [this time]. ... We probably will make some districts a little more Democratic and some districts a little more Republican."
The redistricting process is the legal province of the Legislature -- but members of Congress and political types thrust their competing agendas into the process. Mr. Pitts was careful to say that recommendations from Washington are only recommendations, but with members' political futures hanging in the balance -- and with the Legislature faced with the daunting task of redrawing its own lines -- the influence from D.C. is considerable.
In 2001, the lead role was taken by then-Sen. Rick Santorum, who was much more engaged in the process than his delegation partner, Sen. Arlen Specter (then a Republican), and freshly appointed Gov. Mark Schweiker.
Keith Schmidt, Mr. Santorum's state director, said Mr. Santorum's southwestern home base -- where much of the more creative line drawing was to take place -- his familiarity with the redistricting process as a former state Legislature staffer and his national profile made him the right person to take the helm for Republicans.
At the time, Republicans held 11 of 21 seats and had to drop two districts. Mr. Santorum hoped to expand the number of Republican seats, but the party suffered an embarrassing loss after pitting its most senior member, 10-term George Gekas, against Rep. Tim Holden, D-Schuylkill, in a member-on-member race. By the second Democratic wave in 2008, the GOP was down to just seven members.
But this year, the tide turned back, giving Republicans 12 of 19 House seats.
"The political gods have given us a second chance at this," said a former Republican congressional staffer involved in the 2002 redistricting. "They gave us a third big-wave election, in our direction, and we won back a bunch of those seats. Now we have to keep them."
The Census Bureau officially announced Tuesday that Pennsylvania will lose a House seat -- and an electoral vote -- in the 2012 election. But the detailed data needed to redraw congressional lines won't be available until late spring or early summer.
After the 2000 census, plans to redraw the lines didn't start coming together until the fall of 2001, with proposals from the state House and Senate. A former congressional staffer -- who remains close to the redistricting process and therefore asked not to be identified in order to speak freely -- said it's imperative that D.C. Republicans come together on a consensus plan earlier this time.
"In a vacuum, stuff just starts happening," the staffer said. "No one wants to go through a process like we had the last time."
By late spring 2001, Mr. Santorum had used his influence to craft a strategy, but there were competing proposals from the different state House caucuses and others, reflecting various political and parochial priorities. Local issues such as grouping certain municipalities or school districts together often are reflected in the final maps.
"It's not just a mathematical equation," said Mr. Schmidt, the former Santorum staffer who now is a Pittsburgh-based Republican consultant. "There are a lot of personal, professional nuances and regional and societal nuances."
The bill was passed in early 2002, but the state Supreme Court struck down the map. The court did not agree with Democrats' insistence that the map was too partisan -- instead demanding that the population of each district be no more than one person apart, rather than the 19-constituent gap between the least and most populous. A few minor tweaks fixed that.
Initially, the GOP-dominated process paid dividends. Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Johnstown, had to face fellow Democrat Frank Mascara of Charleroi. The districts of Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills and Pittsburgh's William Coyne, were drawn together as well, with Mr. Coyne retiring rather than facing off against Mr. Doyle.
Republicans went from an 11-10 advantage in seats to a 12-7 edge, though Mr. Gekas' loss to Mr. Holden -- whom some Republicans would have rather seen pitted against Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Luzerne -- was one maneuver that did not pan out. In addition to Mr. Gekas, the GOP would see several more incumbents fall in ensuing cycles as a national Democratic tide turned Congress blue.
Many Republicans seethed, believing that Mr. Santorum had gone too far in pursuit of a 13- or 14-seat GOP majority that could never happen in a state that last voted for a Republican for president in 1988.
"It doesn't always work out as you planned," Mr. Schmidt said. "The personalities lose elections -- and that's what causes you to lose elections. And I think, 'Did we receive criticism?' I'm sure we did, but everybody through this process gets criticism."
This time, Mr. Pitts pledges to get involved earlier and make the districts more partisan.
Rep. Mark Critz's district, the late Murtha's former realm that snakes from Waynesburg to Johnstown and contains all or part of nine counties, seems the likeliest candidate to be chopped up because, as the only freshman Democrat, Mr. Critz holds the least sway in the delegation.
But it's far from a sure thing. Mr. Pitts noted that a retirement is the easiest way to resolve the congressional-district musical chairs. And there are also political considerations: Getting rid of Mr. Critz's district means that his Republican neighbors -- Upper St. Clair's Tim Murphy and Blair county's Bill Shuster -- would have to take on a good number of Democrats they may not want. The more senior the member, the more power he or she has to demand a favorable district.
And what about the Democrats? Mr. Pitts said he would include Mr. Holden -- who becomes the most senior Democratic member of the delegation with Mr. Kanjorski's defeat in November -- in redistricting discussions.
But Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairman Jim Burn is preparing to be shut out.
"I urge openness in this process that is about to take place," he said. "I am not optimistic that it is going to happen."
Mr. Burn said the party will reach out to voters and urge them to contact their state representatives to ask for a more open and inclusive redistricting. With the sophisticated redistricting software more widely available, members of the public could submit their own ideas for redrawn districts.
Democrats are also in the early stages of assembling a legal team to watch the process and potentially fight the result in court.
"We will have a team on standby to watch any discrepancies or anything that appears to be outside the lines, no pun intended," Mr. Burn said.
But a legal challenge on political grounds is unlikely to succeed. Democrats tried it the last time and were denied by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2004 ruling that gave wide latitude to political gerrymandering. And unlike the state legislative districts, the Pennsylvania constitution has no requirements that congressional districts be compact -- as one look at Mr. Critz's or Mr. Murphy's districts reveals.
The line drawers must be more cognizant of racial representation and maintaining an even number of constituents per district, two areas of the law where courts have been more restrictive.
And the judicial deck is also stacked in Republicans' favor, as Justice Joan Orie Melvin's 2009 election gave the GOP a one-seat edge on the state Supreme Court.
Even with one-party rule, redistricting is far from easy, and observers expect several competing maps to be pitched in the coming months to set off the inevitable political deal-making.
"It's not a pretty process; it's very time-consuming," Mr. Schmidt said. "You seem to make more enemies than friends."
Correction/Clarification: (Published December 28, 2010) U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, never worked for former Congressman William Coyne. A story Sunday about congressional redistricting incorrectly identified Mr. Coyne as Mr. Doyle's former boss.
First Published December 26, 2010 12:00 am