Blurring the Lines: Pa. redistricting wreaks havoc on city's black neighborhoods | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Blurring the Lines: Pa. redistricting wreaks havoc on city's black neighborhoods

"If your vote doesn't matter, why are they trying to steal it?"

The green line shows the boundaries of the current Senate District 38. The red line shows the new 38th District.
The green line shows the boundaries of the current Senate District 38. The red line shows the new 38th District.

As the executive director of Larimer's Kingsley Center, there's one sentiment that Malik Bankston hears from citizens quite a bit: "Why should I worry about voting? My vote doesn't matter."

So a few weeks ago, as a state judge was hearing arguments over the controversial Voter ID law, he put a message up on the marquee outside his building: "If your vote doesn't matter, why are they trying to steal it?"

 And that, he surmises, is the agenda behind a Republican-led process to redraw local political boundaries. "They want to further marginalize us and push us out of the public and political discourse as much as possible."

Every 10 years, following the national Census, states are required to redraw political districts to reflect changes in population. In Pennsylvania, the political map for the state representatives and senators who represent voters in Harrisburg is drawn by a Legislative Reapportionment Commission. 

Few areas have been wracked as much as the state Senate's 38th District, represented by Jim Ferlo, of Highland Park. 

Currently, the 38th stretches from the city's North Side into East End communities like Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, Larimer and Homewood. It reaches out into the city's eastern suburbs, and all the way into Armstrong and Westmoreland counties. But despite its sprawling reach, the 38th contains a strong African-American voting bloc: More than one-quarter of its residents are black.

But under a new map, which is being challenged in the state Supreme Court, the 38th would be reshaped almost entirely. Portions of neighborhoods like Larimer, Highland Park and East Liberty would now be lumped in with northern suburbs, many of them among the most affluent in the county: Bradford Woods, Wexford and Allison Park. Blacks would make up only 6 percent of the new district. 

"That district gave the African-American community the ability to speak with the power of one voting bloc," says Ferlo. But Republicans "are playing politics to the detriment of [city voters]." Those living in Larimer and Highland Park, he says, "have little relationship to the problems of citizens in Bradford Woods."

Charges of "gerrymandering" often surface when district boundaries are redrawn, especially when elected officials do the carving. In other states, lines are drawn by non-partisan panels, but in Pennsylvania, the tasks are handled by a "Legislative Reapportionment Commission" dominated by politicians. Four of the panel's five members are the party leaders from the state House and Senate:  Republicans Mike Turzai and Sen. Dominic Pileggi and Democrats Frank Dermody and Sen. Jay Costa. The fifth member was chosen by the Republican-leaning state Supreme Court, who chose Superior Court President Judge Emeritus Stephen J. McEwen Jr. — also a Republican.

This is the second time Pennsylvania has tried to redraw its boundaries this year — and for Ferlo and the 38th, things have only gotten worse. 

In February, the LRC released its first attempt at reapportionment. The plan met with a chorus of objections, especially from the eastern part of the state, where communities were divvied up between several districts. State law requires that whenever possible, legislative-district lines try to accommodate existing municipal boundaries, and in court, challengers presented alternate plans showing maps in which more communities remained intact. 

The state Supreme Court, by a 4-3 vote, tossed the LRC's first map out, sending commissioners back to the drawing board. 

Ironically, in that original map, Pittsburgh's portion of the 38th district was left intact. But when a new map was unveiled in June, the 38th had been redrawn entirely, with little warning to the communities affected. 

"The changes to the 38th were never vetted," says Chuck Pascal, an attorney who has filed one of the challenges to the current map on behalf of eight city residents. (One of Pascal's plaintiffs, Patrick Clark, of Bloomfield, is married to City Paper associate editor Al Hoff.)

Under the new map, most of the 38th's city neighborhoods — including Bloomfield, Perry North and Homewood — would become part of the district held by state Sen. Wayne Fontana, a South Hills Democrat. The district represented by Democrat Jay Costa, of Monroeville, would absorb the 38th's easternmost portions. The new 38th would be reoriented northward, to include much of what was the 40th Senatorial district held by Jane Orie. Orie, a North Hills Republican, was convicted earlier this year of ethics charges: Her seat is currently held by Randy Vulakovich, a former state Representative who last month won a special election to complete her current term. 

Pascal admits that statewide, the new map does split up a smaller number of municipalities. But many gratuitous divisions remain, he says — and Pittsburgh, especially, is the worse for it. 

"There are many instances of these things happening throughout the state," he says, "but none as drastic as what's being done to the African-American community in District 38."

In overturning the first map, Chief Justice Ronald Castille wrote that "communities indeed have shared interests for which they can more effectively advocate when they can act as a united body." But the East End's black neighborhoods, Pascal says, "have zero community interest with the North Hills."

Pascal adds that the Pittsburgh region has never had a senatorial district with a majority African-American population. Under the new boundaries, he says, it wouldn't even have one where the black population is above 20 percent.

"All [reapportionment] does is lessen the influence of the African-American community to pick a candidate of their choosing."

Pascal's is one of 13 appeals filed against the current map; each of the challenges faults the boundaries for violating the state Constitution by splitting up the existing political subdivisions to support a political agenda. The state Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on the plan in a live televised session Sept. 13. (The court will hear challenges to the state's Voter ID law the same day.)

In his suit, Pascal alleges that the final map for Senate districts was drafted solely by Republicans on the commission. However, LRC attorneys deny that, and claim that "several aspects of the map were included in a spirit of bipartisanship." In fact, Dermody, one of the commission's Democrats, voted in favor of the plan, saying it met constitutional requirements. Fellow Democrat Costa disagreed, charging that the map was "the product of a broken and bewildering process in which the public was ignored and negotiation was illusory."  

The LRC's legal filings say little about specific boundary lines, arguing that "the commission is under no obligation to justify or explain elements of its plan. It is the burden of the appellants to demonstrate that it is not constitutional." The LRC does assert, however, that sometimes, in order to draw a "tenable" map, "it is necessary to divide subdivisions whose individual populations do not warrant" keeping them whole. 

The resident whose voice is most immediately threatened by the new map, of course, is Ferlo — a progressive champion who has, among other things, fought for single-payer health care and denounced the war in Iraq. Vulakovich is almost certain to run for re-election: In a district centered on the decidedly Republican North Hills, he'd essentially be defending his home turf.  

And while Ferlo says Fontana and Costa would work hard for former residents of the 38th district, "I'm very resentful that the core of the African-American community is being divided amongst three districts.

"The Republican agenda here is quite clear and quite political," Ferlo says. "I like [Sen.] Vulakovich, he's a great guy and a gentleman, but we don't agree philosophically on a lot of political issues — mainly all of them. I fully intend to run again, but I don't know what the future brings."

(Vulakovich did not respond to calls for comment.)

Similar uncertainty confronts neighborhood leaders like David Hance, president of the Highland Park Community Development Corporation. Hance says the district's city neighborhoods have spent years working together toward common goals. But now when those neighborhoods want help from Harrisburg, they will have to go to three separate senators. "Our representation at the state level has been diluted and the state's investment in East End development will be fragmented and less efficient because of it."

And he fears that Highland Park, especially, may have a hard time being heard in the newly constituted 38th. 

"There's quite a difference in how things get done in the city compared to elsewhere," Hance says. "There is a concern moving from a district that has a critical mass of city communities into a deliberately-drawn non-city district."

Bankston touts Ferlo's work with the community, which includes support for green initiatives in Larimer and other community efforts. The effort to dilute the black vote, Bankston says, is also an effort "to marginalize outspoken voices like the one Jim Ferlo has used."

But Bankston says this is nothing new. "Our hope is that the Supreme Court will throw out this map as well," he says. "But this is truly a lesson that our votes and our participation matter. If speaking out didn't matter, then they wouldn't try to steal your voice."

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