Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Contact 90.5 WESA with a story idea or news tip:

Democrats Prepare To Take Turn At Drawing U.S. House Districts

Chris Knight
State Sen. Jay Costa, D-Allegheny County, discusses pension legislation at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Tuesday, June 30, 2015.

Top Democratic state lawmakers said Monday they want to work with Gov. Tom Wolf on a consensus Democratic plan of congressional districts to present to state Supreme Court justices who are poised to impose new boundaries.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa and House Minority Leader Frank Dermody said they hope to meet with Wolf as early as Tuesday to begin cooperation on a map, and have urged Wolf to reject a map given to him on Friday by the GOP-controlled Legislature's top Republicans.

A redrawn map of Pennsylvania districts could boost Democrats nationally in their quest to take control of the U.S. House. With the 6-year-old map of GOP-drawn districts struck down in a gerrymandering case, the boundaries of Pennsylvania's 18 congressional districts for May's primary election are up in the air.

Members of Congress, dozens of first-time candidates and millions of registered voters may find themselves living in a new district, a month before the deadline to file paperwork to run in congressional primaries.

Neither Wolf nor Democrats have made public a map that they plan to submit.

Wolf's office did not reveal on Monday how it would handle the proposed Republican map, and whether the governor would reject it or submit it with his approval to the court.

The governor's office said it had retained a mathematician with an expertise in redistricting, Moon Duchin of Tufts University, to review the GOP-drawn map.

If he accepts the Republican product, Wolf has a court-ordered deadline to submit it no later than Thursday. Otherwise, the justices said they would adopt a plan no later than next Monday to keep the primary election on schedule.

Costa, D-Allegheny, said a fair map would require making districts more competitive in general elections, including potentially four districts that are heavily packed with Democrats.

"That's the only way you can have a fair map, but by the same token, some of the Republican seats need to become more competitive as well," Costa said. "That's the whole idea behind this. We need to have more competitive seats. We don't have a sufficient number of competitive seats."

House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, rejected that idea.

"You should not be drawing a map based on quote-unquote competitiveness," Turzai said. "The notion that you're out to create a Democratic map is just in violation of this court's order."

The court struck down the Republican-drawn district boundaries on Jan. 22, in a victory for the registered Democratic voters who filed the gerrymandering case last June. The boundaries, used in three straight elections going back to 2012, "clearly, plainly and palpably" violated the state constitution, the justices wrote in a 5-2 decision that broke along partisan lines, with Democrats in the majority.

The court's majority opinion said it was suitable to apply anti-gerrymandering benchmarks in the state constitution for drawing state legislative districts — such as creating compact and contiguous districts — to the state's congressional map.

Lawyers for the Democratic voters who sued called the Republicans' proposed replacement map a "naked partisan gerrymander" that divides populous southeastern counties for partisan gain and Democrats noted that it bumps their most prominent challengers into different districts.

Republicans who controlled the Legislature and governor's office after the 2010 census drew new congressional boundaries to help maintain a big Republican advantage in Pennsylvania's congressional delegation.

They succeeded, securing 13 of 18 seats in three straight elections in a state where registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans and Democrats hold a large majority of statewide offices. The map was called "the worst gerrymander in modern Pennsylvania history," by Franklin & Marshall College political scientist G. Terry Madonna.

Only Texas, California and Florida now send more Republicans to the U.S. House than Pennsylvania.