The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

State News

March 30, 2014

How Dems gave GOP even more Pa. power

HARRISBURG — Republicans who used gerrymandering and geography to hold onto a majority in the U.S. House in 2012 despite widespread losses got help from an unlikely source: Pennsylvania Democrats.

A year earlier, state House Democrats helped pass the Republican-drawn map of the Pennsylvania’s congressional districts. And even before that, they had another chance to stop it.

With a divided Republican majority on the Senate State Government Committee, approval of the map was in question until one Democrat, Philadelphia Sen. Christina Tartaglione, voted for it. Her congressman, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, had supported it, Tartaglione said.

“I guess it was OK for his district,” Tartaglione said.

Many Democrats now say that map is how Republicans came to control 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 U.S. House seats, despite Democrats owning a 4-to-3 registration edge in Pennsylvania.

The bill, which passed in December 2011, was the second time in 10 years that Republicans got to draw the state’s map of congressional districts to reflect decade-long demographic shifts, thanks to their control of both Pennsylvania’s Legislature and governor’s office.

That outsize, eight-seat edge in a state that has voted for the Democrat in six straight presidential elections is also a major contributor to the GOP’s 33-seat majority in the U.S. House, control that shows no signs of changing in this year’s congressional elections.

Nationally, Republicans built an advantage when they drew new boundaries for House districts in key states after the 2010 Census.

The Pennsylvania map – designed by Republicans to increase their congressional delegation from 12 to 13 in the 2012 election – was called “the worst gerrymander in modern Pennsylvania history” by Franklin & Marshall College political scientist G. Terry Madonna.

It shifted whole counties and some of the state’s larger cities into new congressional districts, many of which were contorted in an effort to spread the state’s most conservative voters as generously as possible and lump its heavy concentrations of Democrats into as few districts as possible. And Republicans did win a 13th seat, after a hard-fought and expensive race in a substantially changed 12th District stretching more than 100 miles from Johnstown to Pennsylvania’s western border with Ohio.

The map was so effective that President Barack Obama lost 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 congressional districts to Republican challenger Mitt Romney in the 2012 election, while beating Romney statewide by more than 300,000 votes out of 5.74 million cast.

This year may provide the biggest test of the map: six-term Rep. Jim Gerlach is retiring, providing an open seat for Democrats to target in the increasingly liberal Philadelphia suburbs.

Republicans are confident that they will return 13 party members to Congress, and the state’s party chairman, Rob Gleason, chalks up the party’s success in congressional elections to great candidates.

Still, Democrats drew a hypothetical map that they say would flip the congressional delegation to 13 Democrats and five Republicans.

But while Democratic leaders in the state Legislature opposed the GOP’s map, rank-and-file Democrats helped it become law.

Tartaglione later voted with every Democrat in the Senate to oppose the bill, once she learned more about it, she said. Several Republicans voted against it, too, but it still squeaked by, 26-24. In the House, the bill could not have passed without Democratic support – 16 of 92 voted “yes” – after eight Republicans voted no and four didn’t vote.

Democrat Eugene DePasquale, Pennsylvania’s auditor general who served in the House at the time, voted for it because, he said, the south-central Pennsylvania congressional district in which he lives became more competitive for Democrats by moving the city of Harrisburg into it.

Democratic Rep. Sid Michaels Kavulich said he voted for it because congressional representation of his northeastern Pennsylvania district would exchange a Republican for a Democrat. The Democrat in question, then-U.S. Rep. Tim Holden, didn’t ask him to vote for it, Kavulich said.

Brady declined to comment, but U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, a Pittsburgh Democrat, questioned whether Democrats could win more than half of the state’s congressional districts, no matter who drew them, although he made no bones about his willingness to try to squeeze Republicans, given the chance.

“I promise you, if the shoe was on the other foot,” Doyle said, “we’d do the same to them.”


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Tackling the area's drug problem.
Controlling folks moving into city housing.
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