Has ground shifted beneath Dems on redistricting? | Blogh

Friday, September 14, 2012

Has ground shifted beneath Dems on redistricting?

Posted By on Fri, Sep 14, 2012 at 5:24 PM

OK, it's finally here, the blog post you've been waiting for: our write-up of the torrid redistricting action before the Supreme Court!

Bottom line? State Sen. Jim Ferlo might be in trouble.

Redistricting, of course, is the process of drawing up the boundaries for legislative districts, which must be crafted anew after each Census. State legislative districts are set by a 5-person panel, made up of the four party leaders in the state House and Senate, and a fifth member chosen by the courts. And the Legislative Reapportionment Commission appeared before the court yesterday, it wasn't for the first time. The Commission's first map, drawn in 2011, was tossed out by the court.

Yesterday, he court heard several challenges to the new map, some more lucid than others. The broadest criticisms were presented on behalf of a bipartisan group of citizens including Amanda Holt, the Lehigh County resident who drew up a redistricting map of her own ... one that made the LRC's previous efforts look like ... like ... I don't know, like it had been put together by a bunch of party hacks or something.

The court previously cited Holt's map as proof that the commission's first effort could have been much better. And attorney Virginia Gibson argued the same was true this time. Holt had again drafted maps in which fewer municipalities were split, and the districts were less sprawling, and jigsaw-piece-like ... or, as the lawyers put it, they were more "compact and contiguous."

By contrast, Gibson said, the Commission had used what she called "amorphous factors," like protecting incumbents and holding together "communities of interest" -- areas with similar demographic and other concerns, even if they were divided by a political boundary. Gibson said such factors shouldn't trump requirements like compactness. "Amorphous factors," she said, were often just fig leafs for party shenanigans. "Concerns of community are sometimes a synonym for concerns of party," she said.

The commission's lead attorney, Joseph Del Sole, didn't exactly deny that Holt's map was tidier. But he noted that redistricting was an inherently political process -- witness the fact that the law puts party leaders in charge of it. And while it's easy to draw a clean map, politics is often messy. Holt, Del Sole told the judges "didn't need to get another vote. She didn’t publish her plan in the newspaper and give 30 days for people to comment," and she didn't need to get anyone to vote for it.

Anyway, Del Sole said, both maps involved thousands of splits, and that the difference between them amounted to less than 2 percent -- good enough for government work, in other words, especially given the Commission's extra burden to balance out competing interests.

Later arguments turned toward more specific concerns, including those involving Allegheny County. In an appeal filed by Sen. Jay Costa (D-Monroeville), attorney Clifford Levine argued that Democratic maps were ignored by Republicans on the panel, even though the Democratic proposals had fewer splits. "This was not a situation where there was working together and building consensus," Levine argued.

Del Sole countered that Costa had gotten some of what he'd asked for. The commission's original 2011 plan, Del Sole noted, outraged Democrats by moving state Senate district 45 from the Mon Valley to Monroe County. In the new plan, the 45th remains. "To suggest there was no process whereby these matters could be resolved is just not correct," Del Sole said. (What's more, he noted, one Democrat on the commission, Oakmont Rep. Frank Dermody, had voted in favor of the plan, proving its bipartisan bona fides ... and presumably assuring Dermody gets picked last for kickball in the Democratic caucus for the forseeable future.)

Allegheny County came up again, toward the end of the day, with the debate focused on the 38th state Senate seat held by Jim Ferlo. As we've written previously, the 38th currently encompasses several city black neighborhoods and other East End communities. Under the new proposal, the district would be reoriented toward the North Hills -- the former domain of state Sen. Jane Orie -- with a small rump of black neighborhoods that would be numerically overwhelmed by voters in the prosperous suburbs.

But by the time such issues came before the court, much of the legal ground had been fought over. The arguments of Charles Pascal were, accordingly, fairly brief. Pascal argued that city neighborhoods from the South Hills to the East End had been needlessly split into various districts, while "[t]he influence of the African-American community has been significantly reduced." And despite the commission's claim to be preserving "communities of interest," Pascal charged, "there is no community of interest that is shared between the 11th and 12th wards of the city Pittsburgh and the North Hills."

On the other hand, argued Commission attorney William Stickman when it was his turn to speak, how much common interest was there in the current 38th district? After all, the 38th extends into the rural hinterlands beyond the county line. "What interest does someone in the Lincoln-Lemington area have in common with a farmer in Armstrong county?" Stickman asked. What's more, he said the new boundaries actually reduced the number of "splits," he said, because the new 38th is wholly within Allegheny County.

Stickman allowed that the black vote would be weakened within the 38th, but noted that most black neighborhoods were absorbed into Sen. Jay Costa's Monroeville-based district. As a result, he said, Costa's district jumped from 10 percent black to 22 percent, all in "an urban, Allegheny County district."

The response of Justice Max Baer, a Democrat and Pittsburgher who'd asked for Stickman's rationale, may not be good news for Democrats. "That's a good explanation," Baer said. "Thank you."

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