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Newly proposed Pennsylvania political maps have (mostly) good news for local Dems

This preliminary map of local state House districts offers opportunities for Democrats, but reconfigured city districts are raising eyebrows
Legislative Reapportionment Commission map, as displayed on Dave's Redistricting site.
This preliminary map of local state House districts offers opportunities for Democrats, but reconfigured city districts are raising eyebrows

With President Joe Biden lagging in polls and midterm elections traditionally bad for the party in power, next year’s elections figure to be difficult for Democrats. But if the climate is stormy, Democrats like Marco Attisano say the political landscape suddenly looks more favorable — thanks to new preliminary state political maps unveiled yesterday.

“I think it’s a fair and competitive map, and I think when things are fair and competitive, there’s an opportunity for Democrats,” said Attisano, an attorney and previous state House candidate from O’Hara Township.

A bipartisan state legislative commission, headed by former University of Pittsburgh chancellor Mark Nordenberg, drafted preliminary state House and state Senate district maps that incorporate data from last year’s Census. While the maps are subject to change – and a public comment period on them is now underway – pundits and politicos across the spectrum say they give Democrats real opportunities to make headway.

“It’s a pretty good map for Democrats,” said Ben Forstate, a political consultant who works for Democratic campaigns. “It’s got some interesting configuration of municipalities that we haven’t seen before. And combined with a lot of incumbents leaving, it means we’ll have a lot of potentially competitive primary or general-election races in Allegheny County.”

That may prove especially true north of Pittsburgh, an area where demographic shifts have already been shaking up a longtime Republican bastion.

Attisano, for one, previously sought a state House district ultimately won by Republican Lori Mizgorski. But the new maps would draw Mizgorski into a district currently held by Democrat Sara Innamorato — and the battle between them would be on ground where Democrats have a two-to-one registration advantage. Taking other changes into account, the map could place Attisano in a district that lacks an incumbent but has a Democratic tilt – and Attisano says he’s thinking of running again.

While Attisano noted that the maps could be changed between now and a final vote – or be altered by a lawsuit – he said, “I’m seriously, seriously thinking hard on it, and a lot of people have been reaching out and encouraging me.”

Republicans, not surprisingly, are less enamored of the new lines, especially when it comes to House districts. Among them is Carrie Del Rosso, a first-term Representative from Oakmont who toppled Democratic House leader Frank Dermody in 2020. She’s now been drawn out of that district, and into one that includes another long-time Democrat, Anthony DeLuca of Penn Hills. Though it’s not clear DeLuca will run again, that battle too would take place largely on Democrats’ turf.

“I’m only keeping about one-thirteenth of my district,” said Del Rosso. “I love this job and I’ve spent a lot of time in this district, and now I’m getting yanked away. But what I feel most upset about is my constituency. And it’s being done by a commission that I would expect to be a little more fair.”

Republicans seem poised to lash out at Nordenberg, the critical deciding vote in a five-member commission otherwise composed of an equal mix of House and Senate Republicans and Democrats

“If Mark Nordenberg set out to deliver a Democrat majority in the legislature, then he succeeded,” said Sam DeMarco, who chairs the Republican Committee of Allegheny County. “If he set out to do a fair district redistricting, then he is incompetent.”

DeMarco suggested that there could be political and financial implications for Nordenberg and for the university he once led. “He’s done his reputation no favors,” said DeMarco. “I’d urge anyone who has ever given money to Pitt to pull it.”

Most outside analysis of the maps so far has suggested that Republicans will maintain a slight edge. But among the areas where they could boost Democratic prospects is the state Senate seat of Lindsey Williams, whose re-election bid next year is expected to be hotly contested.

Under the map, Williams’ district would dip further into the Democratic bastion of Pittsburgh, while shedding more Republican northern suburbs. These would be deeded over to first-term Republican Sen. Devlin Robinson, whose district would become more GOP-friendly, as he in turn shed Democrat-friendly Mt. Lebanon from his district into that of neighboring Democrat Wayne Fontana.

The treatment of incumbents is what most angers the GOP. Republican House incumbents would be drawn into battles with each other in about a half-dozen districts statewide; Democrats only in one. And where incumbents of opposite parties would face each other, as in Allegheny, the territory is more likely to tilt the Democrats’ way.

“How do you go across the state and create a half-dozen districts where Republicans run against each other, and only one where Democrats do?” said DeMarco.

That complaint was shared by Republicans like House GOP commission member Kerry Benninghoff, who called the map a case of “extremely partisan gerrymandering.” The map’s drafters, he said, did not “undo the wrongs that they seek to correct,” Benninghoff said. “They revel in them.”

Democrats make few apologies, arguing that the GOP politicians benefited for decades from highly favorable maps and are only complaining now that the boot appears on the other foot. (Darrin Kelly, western Pennsylvania’s top labor leader, laughed out loud when asked about Benninghoff’s remarks: “Talk about hypocrisy,” he said.) But the configuration of a few local districts have given some Democrats pause.

First term state Rep, Emily Kinkead, for one, saw her district, which once combined some suburban areas with parts of Pittsburgh’s North Side and Lawrenceville, become almost an entirely suburban district. The only part of the city left is the sliver of Brighton Heights where she lives.

The new map unifies long-fractured Ross Township in one district, but Kinkead lamented that her neighborhood was tacked onto it, rather than being included in a newly expanded city district just blocks away. That seat had been held by Jake Wheatley, who will be leaving for a post in Mayor-elect Ed Gainey’s administration. “It’s surprising to me that they put someone who lives in the North Side just outside a district that is predominantly the North Side – and that has no incumbent.”

Wheatley’s old district itself is poised for changes, as some of its most heavily Black neighborhoods are annexed to Gainey’s own former House seat. That is already raising concerns in some quarters that the county is losing a traditional base of Black political power.

“It does look to me that it would not qualify as a minority-majority district as the courts define it,” said Matt Merriman-Preston, a Democratic political consultant with extensive campaign experience in the city. As the city’s Black population has shrunk, he said, “The shape of that district has gotten stranger and stranger.”

The city’s dwindling Black population, which itself was a political issue during this year’s mayoral race, is a challenge to mapmakers at other levels as well. The consolation, Merriman-Preston said, is that at least within the city itself, “We certainly have a recent history of coalitions between white and Black voters coming together.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.