Where Allegheny County’s Harrisburg delegation stands on redistricting reform

We asked them. Some answered.

The state capitol building in Harrisburg

The state capitol building in Harrisburg

Ken Marshall / Flickr
Sarah Anne Hughes

When the dust from the November election had settled — and Jill Stein’s lawyers had left the city without a victory — voters deeply unhappy with the results turned their attention to a new cause: gerrymandering.

Since Trump’s election, there’s been a renewed focus on how Pennsylvania’s congressional and state legislative districts are drawn. The state’s congressional districts are notoriously biased (a mathematical theorem has even proven it!), and state legislative boundaries were the subject of a court battle over a 2011 plan that chopped up municipalities.

There are different processes for drawing these districts. To define congressional boundaries, both chambers of the Pa. state legislature vote on a bill, subject to approval from the governor. This process happens every 10 years, after the U.S. census, to account for population changes.

The Pa. Senate and House districts are redrawn after the census, too. These boundaries are determined by a commission of four legislators — the majority and minority leaders from each chamber — as well as a chairman appointed by those members or, if they can’t agree, by the Pa. Supreme Court. For the 2010-11 redistricting process, the members of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission were Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County; House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny County; Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny County; House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny County; and Superior Court President Judge Emeritus Stephen McEwen Jr., a Republican.

Pennsylvania Democrats and other citizens filed 11 appeals to the Pa. Supreme Court over an initial version of the commission’s plan. Perhaps no one remembers that battle better than state Sen. Jim Brewster.

The Democrat represents the 45th District, which included parts of Kennedy Township, Carnegie and Bridgeville when he was elected in 2010. But the Legislative Reapportionment Commission’s plan released in 2011 moved Brewster’s Senate seat to the Poconos, a decision Brewster appealed — and won.

In January 2012, the state Supreme Court ruled that the reapportionment plan was “contrary to law.” Brewster told The Incline this week that he remembers sitting through the arguments and hearing attorneys for the Republicans argue that he could simply run in the Poconos.

“I went back and told Senator Costa, ‘We’re gonna win the case,'” he said.

The commission released an altered plan that summer, with Brewster’s District remaining in Western Pa., which the court upheld in 2013. Only Costa voted against it.

“The approval of the redistricting plan by the state Supreme Court is disappointing. We believe that we successfully argued that a fair map, one that includes far fewer municipality, county and community splits, could be created. Our arguments and rationale were consistent and constructive throughout the process,” Costa said in a statement after the ruling. “Our belief is that the map approved by the commission is partisan and only serves narrow, partisan political interests. We believe there are better alternatives and we offered those during the long reapportionment process.”

Dermody, the Allegheny County Democrat who voted in favor of the plan, told the Associated Press then it wasn’t “perfect … However, that is the nature of compromise.”

“I take a great deal of pride in the fact that we made history,” Brewster said, adding that he’s sort of like a poster child for redistricting.

The importance of 2020

While Pennsylvania is being led by a Democrat governor, its elected officials in Congress and the state legislature are overwhelmingly Republican.

Republicans hold a majority in both chambers of the state house, while 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 representatives in Congress are members of the GOP. With the state poised to lose another seat in Washington after the 2020 census, gerrymandering has taken on a new importance.

Fair Districts PA, a coalition of citizens and groups including the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, is pushing for the creation of an independent redistricting commission (that means no politicians or people closely associated with them). An event arranged by the group will be held this Sunday at Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve, with two others in Pittsburgh planned for next month. A meeting at the Mt. Lebanon Public Library last weekend was over-capacity.

Learn about redistricting reform with Fair Districts PA

Hearing a lot about gerrymandering, but not sure exactly what it is? Fair Districts PA speaker Jamie McGovern will talk about redistricting in PA and proposes reforms the group supports. Parking is limited, so carpooling is recommended.

Where:Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve at 614 Dorseyville Road (Fox Chapel)

When:March 26, 2017 from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.

How much:Free

Where your elected officials stand

Determining where Allegheny County’s entire Harrisburg delegation stands on redistricting reform is tough, as neither the Pa. House nor Senate have voted on any major legislation.

Fair Districts PA asked 2016 candidates to sign a pledge “to support legislation to remove control of the redistricting process from all individuals who have direct conflicts of interest in the outcome … and to establish an independent citizens’ redistricting commission with authority over both legislative and congressional redistricting.”

No Allegheny County candidates signed it, but Carol Kuniholm of Fair Districts PA said it doesn’t give “a good indication of legislators’ interest since it was introduced fairly close to the election and not publicized well with candidates or incumbents.”

Co-sponsorship sheds a little more light on the issue.

HB 1835, introduced in 2016 by Republican David Parker, would have created an independent citizen commission and was endorsed by Fair Districts PA. The only member of the Allegheny County delegation to co-sponsor it was Republican Rep. Harold English.

Several Democratic members of the Allegheny County delegation — Tony DeLuca, Dom Costa, Dan Deasy, Ed Gainey and Adam Ravenstahl — are co-sponsoring HB 563, which would create an 11-member independent commission to draw boundaries. DeLuca, Gainey and Miller are also co-sponsoring HB 569, which calls for the creation of an independent group.

So does a bill introduced by state Sen. Lisa Boscola in the other chamber, an earlier version of which was supported by Fair Districts PA. State Sen. Wayne Fontana, who represents part of Pittsburgh, is a co-sponsor of SB 22. State Sen. Jay Costa told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette supporting the bill is “not that clear-cut.” He added that he’s “generally supportive of the concept.”

Brewster said he plans to re-introduce his own redistricting legislation. His bill would create a five-member committee to redraw state Senate and House districts. Those members would be selected by academics from a pool of 25 Democrat, Republican and non-affiliated voters.

While Brewster’s bill would require districts to be “geographically compact and contiguous” and for “municipal lines [to] be used and undivided, if possible,” he thinks there’s a case to be made for not requiring each district to represent equal populations.

“If you’re representing an area where you have a large audience of senior citizens and heavy unemployment, thousands of families with single parents, these kinds of groups really generate a great deal of need and need help,” he said.

Like the other redistricting bills, Brewster’s requires an amendment to the state constitution, which means a bill would have to pass both chambers during two consecutive sessions and get approved by the voters before going into effect. But if the time’s not right now, when will it be?

“We’re trying to de-politicize the process,” he said. “I would support any bill for redistricting reform in addition to mine. I think ours is as good as any. There’s a feeling now in the general assembly and in the different communities we represent that this needs to be reviewed.”

Who else supports redistricting reform?

To find out where other members of the Allegheny County delegation stand on the issue, The Incline reached out to the staffs of dozens of members with two basic questions:

  1. Do you support redistricting reform?
  2. Do you plan to co-sponsor or introduce any related legislation this session?

Below are the responses we received. If you’ve contacted your Allegheny County representative or senator about this issue and received a response, feel free to email it to The Incline.

Rep. Dom Costa, Democrat-District 21

Does the representative support the creation of an independent commission to oversee the redistricting process? Please explain why or why not.

“Yes, just look at the map of his district. People would be better served by a nonpolitical commission because there will be no political incentives to push a district in either party’s favor,” Anita Boehm from Costa’s office told The Incline in an email.

Does the representative plan to introduce or co-sponsor any redistricting-related legislation this session? If so, please explain.

“He does not plan to introduce legislation as there are already four bills that have been introduced on the subject. Two in the Senate and two in the House. Yes, he has co-sponsored both HB563 and HB569, which are currently in the State Government Committee.”

Rep. Dan Deasy, Democrat-District 27

Does the representative support the creation of an independent commission to oversee the redistricting process? Please explain why or why not.

Deasy told The Incline in an email: “Yes – I support an independent commission to oversee the redistricting process because I believe it is vitally important to keep politics out of government. An independent commission would help in ensuring that legislative districts are not gerrymandered for sole purposes of incumbent protection or to sway or protect the majority for any one political party.”

Does the representative plan to introduce or co-sponsor any redistricting-related legislation this session? If so, please explain.

“Yes — as in each session since I was first elected, I have co-sponsored legislation dealing with how the district lines are drawn in Pennsylvania. During this current session, I have added my name to three pieces of legislation that address this important issues.

“Specifically, I have co-sponsored House Bill 563, which not only would create an independent commission, but also will call for the commission to hold public hearings to allow for constituent input.”In addition, there are two other pieces of legislation that have been drafted but not introduced to date that deal with this important topic.

“Rep. Brian Sims is sponsoring, and I have informed him of my intent to co-sponsor, a bill that would create a non-partisan redistricting commission with the members of the commission being appointed by the Director of the Legislative Reference Bureau. The Bureau is a non-partisan entity.

“Rep. Mary Jo Daley is introducing a bill which I have also agreed to co-sponsor that would permit any resident to submit reapportionment plans to the commission. In order to facilitate public participation in the process, the Commission would be required to make software and demographic data available to the public for their use in developing their plan. Daley’s legislation would also require the Commission to hold at least five public hearings; create a public website that provides access to the data used to formulate reapportionment plans; and comply with the Sunshine Act and the Right-to-Know Law.

“I am happy to lend my support for these important pieces of legislation that would not only help in modernizing and streamlining the reapportionment effort, but also ensure an open and fair process.”

Rep. Dan Frankel, Democrat-District 23

Does the representative support the creation of an independent commission to oversee the redistricting process? Please explain why or why not.

Frankel told The Incline in an email: “Very simply, we need to get politics out of redistricting, and we know that redistricting reform is an important issue for the people of Pennsylvania. I am supportive of the idea of some kind of independent commission being created to oversee the redistricting process. I would always reserve the right to closely review any specific legislation, but yes, I am supportive of the idea.”

Does the representative plan to introduce or co-sponsor any redistricting-related legislation this session? If so, please explain.

“I am focused a number of issues important to my district and redistricting reform is certainly one of them. I will closely review any redistricting reform proposals and add my name as a sponsor for the ones that I believe move us forward on this important issue. One such bill garnering attention is Senate Bill 22 which would create an independent redistricting commission. This bill has a long road ahead of it — it’s a constitutional amendment and as such it would require passage in two consecutive legislative sessions and then be put on the ballot as a referendum vote for the people of Pennsylvania to decide. A version of Senate Bill 22 is likely to be introduced in the House at some point soon and I expect to be a cosponsor.”

Rep. Robert Matzie, Democrat-District 16

Does the representative support the creation of an independent commission to oversee the redistricting process? Please explain why or why not.

Matzie told The Incline in an email: “Yes. 100%. Very simply, there should be no partisanship in drawing legislative districts. The fact that gerrymandering still exists in 2017 is astounding to me as an elected official, and should be unacceptable to the voting public.”

Does the representative plan to introduce or co-sponsor any redistricting-related legislation this session? If so, please explain.

“Yes, I’m tentatively planning on introducing legislation. Right now, I’m examining redistricting processes from other states. Arizona’s model seems to be, at this point in time, the most fair. Iowa’s is interesting as well. Although independent redistricting is overwhelmingly popular, it will be a heavy lift. Just yesterday, Governor Hogan’s attempt in Maryland to form an independent commission was defeated in committee. I would, of course, consider co-sponsoring any similar legislation.”

Rep. Dan L. Miller, Democrat-District 42

This was sent by Miller to his constituents and provided to The Incline by his office.

The process of drawing legislative districts is a hot issue across the country, and it’s no different in Pennsylvania. I continue to support a change in our partisan redistricting process, most recently signing on as a co-sponsor of House Bill 569. This bill, which is modeled after changes made in Arizona 17 years ago, would establish the Pennsylvania Independent Redistricting Commission, a bipartisan panel that would be responsible for drawing State House, State Senate, and Congressional district boundaries.

As with many of these issues, there are some similar bills out there looking to address them. A bill like Senate Bill 22 is another good gerrymandering reform bill that would assign the task to a commission outside of the legislature and governor. I would support any combination of these efforts in order to have districts that more equitably represent our citizens. No matter what party controls the process, people should have faith that the districts are drawn for them – and not for politicians.

Rep. Adam Ravenstahl, Democrat-District 20

This is from a letter Ravenstahl sends to constituents concerned about the issue, provided by his office. 

I am a co-sponsor of House Bill 563, legislation that would amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to allow for a more open, transparent process when reapportioning and redistricting the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Under this legislation, the independent commission tasked to draw these lines would not be obligated to incumbent politicians or political parties. I am also a co-sponsor of legislation being introduced by Rep. Mary Jo Daley. This legislation would allow any Pennsylvania resident to submit reapportionment plans for legislative districts. The Reapportionment Commission would be required to consider these plans. Also to assist Pennsylvanians in developing these plans, the Commission would be required to make software and demographic data available to the public.