Learning curve for lawmakers, constituents
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Congressman Tim Murphy lost Baldwin and White Oak but picked up Waynesburg and Latrobe. Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz lost the Mayfair neighborhood of Philadelphia, home to her own district office. Congressman Bill Shuster is working to learn about river barges now that he has part of the Mon Valley.
Redistricting has shaken up Pennsylvania and added a learning curve for lawmakers who will be representing substantially different geographic areas in a few weeks when congressional redistricting takes effect.
"If somebody goes from an urban district to a more agricultural district, there's a whole wheelhouse of different issues," said Robin Lauermann, associate professor of politics at Messiah College in Central Pennsylvania.
The most visible effect of redistricting was a maneuver by state Republicans that required two sitting Democrats -- Mark Critz of Johnstown and Jason Altmire of McCandless -- to run against each other in a newly created district that leaned Republican. Mr. Critz won the primary but narrowly lost to Republican Keith Rothfus of Edgeworth in the general election.
But Mr. Critz's and Mr. Altmire's constituents won't be the only ones who'll have new representation in Washington, D.C., come Jan. 3.
Large parts of Lawrence, Butler and Armstrong counties will come under Rep. Mike Kelly's jurisdiction for the first time. The Butler Republican's new district includes Westinghouse Electric Co. in Cranberry, one of the area's largest private-sector employers, so he'll have to bone up on utility issues. The congressman already has met with managers and toured its facilities, said Brad Moore, Mr. Kelly's district director.
Meanwhile, GE Transportation Systems, which had been in his old district, now will be represented by Rep. Glen Thompson, R-Centre. Mr. Moore said his boss will stay active on issues important to GE because they are important to the region.
Ms. Schwartz, D-Philadelphia, takes the same regional approach to economic issues, said Craig Kwiecinski, the congresswoman's district director. Although her district will no longer include the Delaware River waterfront, she still will represent adjacent areas.
"She has worked very hard to bring resources to the waterfront, to create new vitality there and to support development there so it's something she will still work very hard on," he said. "She has a strong interest in ensuring the development continues."
Additions to districts mean lawmakers and their aides have to study up on new issues and industries.
For example, Mr. Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, has always had defunct coal mines in his district, but now he has working ones, too. He's already been out to visit them, he said.
As a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the issues aren't foreign to him, but some of the players are, particularly in Greene County, a large rural addition to his district.
"It's a place where there are still general stores, not so much grocery stores. It's big, beautiful coal country there," he said.
The constituents there and the issues they care about, though, aren't so different from those in the old part of his district. They are pro-gun and anti-abortion, he said. They care about veterans, dislike environmental regulation, worry about the economy and want lower taxes.
He and other lawmakers and aides say they won't change the way they vote because of the new district lines, but political scientists aren't so sure.
"Given that redistricting may shape the composition and the priorities of the district, it would not be surprising to see shifts in member behavior," Ms. Lauermann said.
Voters like to re-elect lawmakers who appear to identify psychologically with the district and who show they understand particular local concerns, she said.
That means aides will need to research the district and lawmakers will need to invest time meeting constituents from across the district, she said. Constituents can make their needs known to their representatives as well.
Congressmen like Mr. Murphy are meeting them half way.
"My style has always been to communicate a great deal with the district, so we will be mailing them a survey of what their priorities are and what they want me to work on. I want to represent them seriously so I want to know what's on their mind," he said.
Election season gave lawmakers time -- and incentive -- to get to know their new districts.
"To the extent they were trying to figure out how to win votes from the public they've had to do research, and a lot of research goes into congressional campaigns," Ms. Lauermann, the Messiah professor, said. "They're not going in blindly."
Relationship-building is critical when so many lawmakers nationwide are representing new constituencies, she said.
"Constituents cannot direct the member's behavior on all actions and votes, so it is necessary to build diffuse support -- general positive sentiments which are not tied to concrete outcomes," she said. Ultimately that will help guide lawmakers, she said.
Mr. Murphy said he has already heard from some of his new constituents and from his old ones, too, who soon will be represented by Democrat Mike Doyle, of Forest Hills.
Mr. Murphy said he's already been briefing Mr. Doyle on his new constituency. Meanwhile, Mr. Murphy has been getting some help from other lawmakers whose former constituents have been absorbed into the 18th congressional district.
"Elected officials tend to work well with each other in terms of handing off the baton," he said.
It's important for lawmakers to know their districts because much of their work entails bringing home federal money for tangible projects such as infrastructure work and school construction, said Rosalyn Cooperman, associate professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia.
Veteran lawmakers like Mr. Shuster, R-Blair, have been representing the same area since the last redistricting a decade ago.
He got to know Juniata, Mifflin, Perry and Cumberland counties, but starting in January, when redistricting officially takes effect, he won't represent the area or its residents who he has come to know.
"I have a lot of good working relationships I developed over 10 or 12 years with a lot of good people," he said.
Now when one of them calls, he'll have to redirect them to Reps. Thompson; Tom Marino, R-Lycoming; or Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton.
Many of those constituents had been represented by a Shuster for 40 years, said the congressman, whose father Bud preceded him in office.
On the plus side, he picked up Monessen, a municipality he lobbied hard for, drawing puzzled looks from fellow GOP members in the state House who noted that there are far more Democrats than Republicans there. He wanted it because his great-grandfather, general store owner Alpheus Shuster, helped build the town and became its mayor in 1901.
"That's really where the Shuster family's public service tradition was born. It's our DNA," he said. "It was very important to me" to be able to represent Monessen.
First Published November 23, 2012 12:00 am