Catalyst Magazine — Winter 2013/2014
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Pennsylvania Redistricting
Christopher Nicholas

Pittsburgh Democratic state Sen. Jim Ferlo who is now retiring, is a victim of the state’s decennial redistricting battle—a conflict that, because of numerous court challenges and trials, did not end until last May, more than a year behind schedule. That’s why the 2012 legislative elections were held under the old, 2001 boundaries.

The last state in the country to accomplish this feat, Pennsylvania now finally has new legislative districts—a product of a five-member Reapportionment Commission comprising the four legislative Caucus leaders (two Republicans and two Democrats) and a fifth member, former GOP Superior Court Judge Stephen J McEwen, Jr.—so it’s time to examine some of the winners and the losers. Remember that in 2014 the entire state House and the 25 even-numbered state Senate seats are up for election.

Ferlo is a casualty of shifting demographics and the 2010 census, which showed that while the Commonwealth’s population inched up about 3.4 percent in the last decade, that growth was primarily in the eastern part of the state—the Poconos—plus a concentration in the triangle comprising the Philadelphia suburbs, the Lehigh Valley and central Pennsylvania. Philadelphia even managed to eke out a 1 percent gain in population—but for all of the talk of the ‘rebirth’ of the state’s second largest city, its population plummeted by nearly 9 percent in the 2000’s. Combined with the state’s overall 3.4 percent growth, that put it—and Ferlo, a former city councilman—behind the 8-ball.

A look at the fate of Ferlo, a majority of whose district was centered in Pittsburgh, and also that of GOP Rep. Tommy Sankey in Clearfield County illustrates the vagaries of legislative redistricting. Overall, legislative redistricting tends to lock in place the status quo, and that will favor the Republican Party in 2014, as it currently controls both the state Senate (27-23) and the state House (110-92 with one vacancy).

Ferlo didn’t move, but his 38th District was so rejiggered that it now includes primarily GOP-leaning towns in Allegheny County’s north hills, and just a few City wards, which had long been his base. The registration within his new boundaries is 40 percent Democratic, compared to 70 percent under the old lines. The revamped district also includes the home of GOP state Sen. Randy Vulakovich, who’s now heavily favored to hold the seat, given its registration and geography—and that would be a ‘pickup’ for the GOP. The rest of Ferlo’s district was parceled out to nearby Democratic senators.

Simply put, Ferlo’s Pittsburgh-based Senate seat lost population and in the musical chairs game that is state legislative redistricting, it lost. Unlike federal reapportionment, in which states can gain (or lose) seats in the House of Representatives based on their population, Pennsylvania has the same number of state House seats (203) and Senate seats (50) after the redraw as before. So when population shifts occur, seats must move, lock, stock and barrel to other areas of the state. Thus are the vagaries of redistricting.

On the other hand, the district of neighboring Democrat Jay Costa, who also happens to be the Senate Democrat Leader, took in 19 Percent of Ferlo’s former district (a bonus: 77 percent of those new voters are Democrats), but otherwise changed very little. After all the shuffling around, Vulakovich’s 40th District in Allegheny County moved and is now based in Monroe and Northampton counties. So a Republican-held seat moved east—following the population changes in the state—but the GOP will actually probably pick up a seat in the process. Simple, right?

The process can be just as convoluted in the House as the Senate, especially when there are 203 districts to redraw.

GOP Rep. Tommy Sankey, first elected in 2012, is the new representative from the 74th District in Clearfield and Cambria counties, though after redistricting he now lives in the 73rd District. The current member from the 73rd, Democrat Gary Haluska, now lives in the 72nd District, as does the current incumbent there, fellow Democrat Frank Burns.

And though the 33-year-old Sankey has a new district, 74 percent of his new 73rd is his old 74th, which will help nearly guarantee that he wins re-election. Unlike Ferlo, he survived the redraw, in part because his party controls the legislature and partly because he and Burns, who’s 38, represent the future. It also didn’t hurt that Haluska, in office since 1995, long ago secured his pension and free health care for life, which all members of the legislature receive after 10 years of service, so it’s much less likely he challenges Burns in a Democrat primary.

Because that part of western Pennsylvania continued to hollow out and lose population last decade, the old 74th got moved to Chester County along the Rte. 30 corridor, including Downingtown, Coatesville and Parkesburg. It’s a majority Democratic district, so if they retain that seat it will be a wash, since Burns and Haluska got redrawn into the same district. (Only three counties west of Centre County/State College grew their population from 2001-2010, though that’s sure to change this decade as more Marcellus Shale-generated activity draws people back to the region.)

Just think: because of the legal delays with these districts, it’s just seven short years until redistricting must be done all again.

More highlights of legislative redistricting:

• Ironically, 111 House districts (55 percent) have more registered Democrats than Republicans while the GOP holds 111 (55 percent) of the seats in the chamber.

• Incredibly, 17 House districts have more Independent voters than Republicans; not surprisingly they are clustered in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia—14 of those districts are represented by either African American or Hispanic Democrats.

• Steve Santasiero of the 31st House District (Bucks County) is the Democrat in the seat with the most Republican voters, while Rick Mirabito of the 83rd District (Williamsport) is the Democrat in the district with the highest percentage of Republicans, at 48.5 percent.

• In the upper chamber, 26 Senate districts (52 percent) have more registered Democrats than Republicans while the GOP holds 27 seats (54 percent) there.

• The Republican-held Senate seat with the smallest percentage of GOP voters is the 16th, (Pat Browne), with just 36 percent.

Green outline: Sen. Ferlo’s current legislative district (38th) (2001) Pink outline: New 38th Senatorial legislative district (2012)

Pennsylvania Senate Districts 2012 Legislative Reapportionment Commission Final Plan

Pennsylvania House Districts 2011 Legislative Reapportionment Commission Final Plan
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