Partisan fight simmers over crucial Pennsylvania state House redistricting plan

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A partisan fight is emerging in Pennsylvania over the state House redistricting process after the commission tasked with drawing new legislative maps released a proposal last week that could significantly increase Democrats’ representation in the state government. 

“The clear goal of those in favor of this map is to gain control through rigging district lines, and not by the will of the people through fair and honest elections,” Pennsylvania House Speaker Bryan Cutler, a Republican, said last week. 

The body that redraws the state’s legislature’s district lines is called the Pennsylvania Legislative Reapportionment Commission. It consists of the Republican and Democrat leaders of the two legislative chambers in the state plus a chairman who is either selected by those leaders or by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court if they cannot agree on a chair.

The commission passed a proposal for a new House map last week on a 3-2 vote. It is now subject to a 30-day public comment period during which commission members may make changes to the map. 

Pennsylvania House Speaker Bryan Cutler, a Republican, decried a proposed new map for the Pennsylvania House last week. (USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters Connect)
(USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters Connect)

Pennsylvania House Republican Leader Kerry Benninghoff and Senate Republican leader Kim Ward voted against the plan. House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton, Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa and commission chairman Mark Nordenberg – who was selected by the state Supreme Court – voted yes. 

According to Spotlight PA, the new map could result in Democrats making “sizable gains” in the state legislature. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported it would cause Democrats’ chances to control the legislature to “improve dramatically.” 

The process is separate from Pennsylvania’s congressional redistricting, which is done through a legislative process rather than via a commission. But control of the state House could affect legislation on abortion, elections, and other critical topics as state legislatures take center stage in many major political battles in the U.S.

“The proposed House map, advanced today by the House and Senate Democrats and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s appointee, fails to meet clearly defined constitutional standards while also promoting partisan gerrymandering,” Cutler added. 

Cutler’s comment about the state Supreme Court reflects simmering frustration from Pennsylvania Republicans at the tribunal, which has had a Democratic majority for years. Democrats held a 5-2 advantage in the body at the time it selected Nordenberg, a Democrat himself and a longtime chair of the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute of Politics. 

(Pennsylvania Legislative Reapportionment Commission Chairman Mark Nordenberg during a meeting of the commission last week. It approved a preliminary map for the state House during that meeting by a 3-2 vote. (Pennsylvania Legislative Reapportionment Commission))

Nordenberg also donated $2,000 to President Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign, according to FEC records, and was a member of Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf’s transition team when he was first elected. His chief counsel on the commission, Rob Byer, was previously elected to be a judge in Pennsylvania as a Republican but donated to the Lincoln Project last year, according to FEC records. Byer has also been sharply critical of Republicans this year on Twitter. 

Nordenberg promised to discharge his duties without bias when he was first chosen for the job, and he worked with prominent members of both political parties in Pennsylvania during his long career at Pitt, including former GOP Gov. Tom Corbett. 

“I have been a non-partisan throughout my professional career. It is true that I contributed to the Biden campaign, just as I had contributed to the Dick Thornburgh for Senate campaign some thirty years ago,” Norrdenberg

 told Fox News. “It is my understanding that my appointment to this role was unanimously supported by the members of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, both Democrat and Republican. I was also encouraged to accept this position, if it was offered to me, by Republican legislative leaders, who underscored the fact that they wanted someone who would be fair and knew that I would be.”

On the proposed House map itself, Nordenberg argued that the shift towards Democrats is simply a reflection of changing demographics in Pennsylvania. 

“Independent analysts seem to be unanimous in concluding that the preliminary House map approved by Pennsylvania’s Legislative Reapportionment Commission continues to favor Republicans, though not by as much as the map currently in place,” he told Fox News. “That change has been driven by census results showing clearly that population growth in House districts in the northern and western regions of the state, which most often are represented by Republicans, has fallen significantly behind the patterns of population growth seen in House districts in the southern and eastern regions of the state, which most often are represented by Democrats.”

Pennsylvania House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, a Democrat, said in October that the best path for Democrats to take back the chamber was via "redistricting." (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Costa and McClinton also both defended the map. Costa’s press secretary Brittany Crampsie told Fox News “he believes that these maps are the preliminary product of a very transparent and inclusive process.” A spokesperson for McClinton said it’s the current House map that is gerrymandered and “institutionalized continuous Republican control of our legislative bodies for decades.”

McClinton made a similar comment at a Pennsylvania Press Club event earlier this fall. 

“Redistricting,” she said when asked how Democrats might take back control of the state legislature, drawing laughs. “Oh, that’s not the answer,” she added, laughing herself. 

“One glance at the way our maps look you’ll see that the way they’re done and the types of splits you have between counties, between townships, between school districts, between populations of communities of color – it’s done in a way that’s gerrymandered and it has favored a Republican majority,” McClinton said. “When we see a reset opportunity it is simply for a fairer map. It’s not some sort of grab … we just want fairer lines.” 

Benninghoff strongly disagrees. 

“The LRC’s preliminary House map is an extreme partisan gerrymander,” he said in a tweet. “It is a danger to our system of government that upends established norms and the emphasis on local control and local voices that Pennsylvanians hold dear.”

Republicans also say that the commission’s proposed map pits at least 12 and up to 14 incumbent Republicans against each other in primaries – but only two to four Democrats against each other. Benninghoff also railed against the way the commission map splits several different cities in the state – including State College, which is split right down the middle of its downtown, and Lancaster, which includes a nearly identical split. 

Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, a Republican, also argued that “several corrections need to be made” to the original proposed map, which she said she expected to see happen during the 30-day comment period. Nordenberg also said he expected some changes. 

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