If State Rep. Bob Brooks, R-Murrysville, wants to continue representing the 54th Legislative District, he may have to move to southeastern Pennsylvania to do so.
Under the House seat redistricting proposal in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, Brooks’ hometown of Murrysville would be split in two. It would be absorbed by the neighboring 55th and 56th districts, and a new 54th district would be created in Norristown, near Philadelphia.
“I’m a little disappointed,” Brooks said. “You would expect them to want to keep school districts, communities, landmarks together.”
And, Brooks pointed out, that’s generally what the state Constitution provides for redistricting.
“They did the same thing in North Huntingdon,” said Republican Westmoreland County Chairman Bill Bretz of Hempfield. “Rep. George Dunbar (R-Penn Twp.) is affected by both moves.
Dunbar’s 56th District covers the township of Penn, North Huntingdon, Irwin and North Irwin.
“I was quite surprised,” Dunbar said.
The House approved the new congressional map on Wednesday, but its fate remains uncertain as a court-imposed deadline looms. The map, which will help determine the balance of power in Washington, passed with the support of all but two Republicans in the House and none of the Democrats. It now goes to the State Senate for consideration.
Dunbar said the redistricting map drawn by the legislative redistricting commission is unconstitutional because it did not meet the criteria for compatibility. The Norwin and Franklin Regional school districts would be split between two legislators.
Dunbar is not affected as much as Brooks, however.
“The problem, as I see it, is if Rep. Dunbar has 65,000 voters, and only 10,000 of them are in Murrysville, where is he going to put the emphasis?” Brooks asked. “Hopefully it would be for both, but you never know.”
Several House Republicans have expressed opposition to the proposed redistricting maps, created by a bipartisan commission that includes Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa and their House counterparts. It is chaired by former University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg.
“From what I can see, the preliminary maps that have been approved by the RCL don’t make any logical sense,” said Republican Rep. Carrie DelRosso, whose 33rd District would no longer include any part of Westmoreland County. . “I think it’s very reasonable to ask (President) Nordenberg how these maps were drawn up and why he thinks they make the most sense for our Commonwealth. Gerrymandering is not the way you provide representation equity of a district or state.
Democrats see the proposed map as undoing years of unfair gerrymandering and Republican political advantage.
“The draft districts I’ve seen are definitely fairer than they were,” said Tara Yokopenic, chair of the Westmoreland County Democrats. “Obviously we want to keep the cities together as best we can. But Westmoreland lost 10,000 people and I expected we would lose a representative.
Dunbar said he thought Nordenberg was simply using the “D” redistricting map for State House districts, without any negotiation between Democrats and Republicans. “There was no discussion. Nordenberg just drew his own map,” Dunbar said.
He said the decision to add North Huntingdon to the district currently served by state Rep. Eric Davanzo, R-Rostraver, made little sense because Davanzo District is based in the Mon Valley section of the county.
“There are no common interests” that link the Mon Valley to North Huntingdon, Dunbar said.
Chris Borick, professor of political science and director of the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, said redistricting often involves “competing goals within the framework of demographic realities.” And for southwestern Pennsylvania, the reality is that the region is losing population while the southeastern corner of the state is gaining.
“You’ll never get perfect satisfaction from the recutting process,” Borick said. “There will be winners and losers. The reality is the west is losing this year no matter the setup.
The preliminary map was approved by a 3-2 vote from the committee, with Nordenberg breaking the partisan tie vote and siding with the Democrats.
Bretz said the proposed redistricting is unfortunate for Westmoreland County residents because they will lose several votes in the Legislative Assembly.
“The districts of Bob Brooks and Jason Silvis are largely consolidated into one,” Bretz said. “Then we have Reps. Ryan Warner and Carrie DelRosso who will no longer have any part of Westmoreland County. That’s three fewer votes representing Westmoreland County in Harrisburg.
In Bretz’s hometown of Hempfield, the commission’s consolidation efforts resulted in the township being entirely confined to State Representative Eric Nelson’s 57th District. But Bretz wasn’t crazy about it either.
“We had four or five different state reps with districts in Hempfield,” he said. “And that was great, because we had four or five people that we could raise our concerns with. Now we’ll have one. And again, that’s the constitutional goal, but it also means that fewer people speak up for us in Harrisburg.
Yokopenic felt Bretz had it upside down.
“I don’t think he’s arguing what he thinks he’s doing,” Yokopenic said. “Having five state reps seemed mostly confusing. We were getting a lot of calls from people, especially during special elections (from the 59th district), asking if they lived in the district or not.
“I think Hempfield needs a state representative,” she said.
For communities like Murrysville that have grown accustomed to a single representative in the State House, the separation is often viewed negatively, according to Borick.
“The west side of the state is going to have fewer districts, and that ultimately means some changes have to take place,” he said. “And you’re definitely going to end up with some unhappy people, especially in the area where you lose a seat.”
The commission is gathering public testimony and commentary on the proposal. These can be submitted to Redistricting.state.pa.us/comment. Public comments will be taken until January 18.