Gov. Tom Wolf's redistricting commission wins praise, groans

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Gov. Tom Wolf talks with the media after voting at Eagle Fire Company in Mount Wolf on midterm Election Day Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. Bill Kalina photo

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's executive order aimed at spurring redistricting reform in Pennsylvania landed with a thud in the Republican-controlled Legislature, even as good government advocates praised the effort.

Following the order late last month, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, Speaker of the House Mike Turzai, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman and House Majority Leader-elect Brian Cutler co-authored a news release in opposition to the order.

The group of legislative leaders called the order "grandstanding" and proclaimed they "will not be props in (Wolf's) theater that is an attempt to be a make-shift alternative to the federal and state constitutions and will have no practical effect." 

“With no input from the General Assembly, the governor issued an executive order where he turned his back on both the state and federal constitutions and embarked on another go-it-alone strategy," the statement read.

The leaders added the commission "ignores large swaths of the commonwealth, specifically rural communities, and charged commission members with a responsibility that he does not have the authority to give."

Support from redistricting advocates: But Carol Kuniholm, chairwoman of Fair Districts PA, a nonprofit volunteer organization that aims to end partisan gerrymandering, said "it's a shame they're trying to make it a partisan issue."

Kuniholm commended the governor for the move, which came Nov. 29, five months after Fair Districts PA protested outside of the governor's Mount Wolf home.

In July, a group of more than 30 demanded Wolf call a special session so legislators could get a bill passed by July, which was necessary to allow voters to make a choice on the referendum on the 2020 ballot. That never happened.

Fair Districts PA Chair Carol Kuniholm, of Exton in Chester County, speaks as dozens gather to petition the home of Gov. Tom Wolf during a Fair Districts PA rally in Mount Wolf, Wednesday, July 11, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert

More:Outside Gov. Wolf's home, protesters call for General Assembly to return for redistricting vote

"I think (the executive order) is very appropriate, and we're very appreciative of Wolf for doing it," Kuniholm said. "This is a fair and nonpartisan effort to move forward on something the public has shown their concern about." 

Fair Districts PA has heard plenty of those concerns, as members have been following the state's redistricting efforts since 2016.

Kuniholm said the new commission is "a good mix of academic, advocates and legislators" and she hopes its input will help both chambers — and parties — come to an agreement about how a commission should be formed to draw district lines.

Fair Districts PA also helped Sen. Mike Folmer, who represents parts of York, Lebanon and Dauphin counties, with his redistricting efforts that were conducted alongside of Democrat Sen. Lisa Boscola, of Northampton County.

Senator Mike Folmer speaks during the Legislative Panel Discussion on the State Budget as the York County Economic Alliance hosts its Spring Legislative Luncheon at Wyndham Garden York in West Manchester Township, Thursday, May 17, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Folmer said he has a "nonview" of the executive order, although he said some of the information from the commission may come in handy.

"The governor has a right to do what he wants to do," Folmer said. "But I wish I would've known about it before it was announced. I view it as the governor looking at redistricting and trying to get more information."

Unconstitutional gerrymandering: The state's methods of drawing congressional lines took the spotlight in the 2018-19 legislative session after the Supreme Court sided in January with plaintiffs who claimed the state's congressional lines were drawn to favor Republican candidates.

The court ordered Wolf and state lawmakers to create a new map in time for the May 15 primary, and when they missed the deadline, the justices imposed their own map.

During the following months, Republicans and Democrats battled over reforming the redistricting process, and the chance to get such a bill as a referendum on the 2020 ballot was lost.

But Wolf took it into his own hands with his Nov. 29 executive order creating a commission to study and make recommendations about how to end partisan gerrymandering in the state.

More:Pa. redistricting bill on its way to Senate

More:Policy think tank: Folmer redistricting amendment 'far from desirable'

 "The goal of this commission is to hear from experts and citizens about what can be done to make this process more fair," the governor said. "The redistricting process should ensure every citizen’s voice is heard in our democratic process.”

The commission: While the commission won't have any legislative power, it comes with several responsibilities.

The 15-member commission will be in charge of reviewing redistricting processes in other states, holding at least six public hearings on the matter and then making recommendations to Wolf and the Legislature within 90 days, or by Feb. 27, 2019.

The commission is composed of politicians, voting rights advocates, individuals working in higher education and up to five citizen appointees.

The members of the commission who have been already been appointed by Wolf are:

  • Lee Ann Banaszak, Penn State University
  • Dr. Damary Bonilla-Rodriguez, of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs
  • Susan Carty, president of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania
  • Kathy Dahlkemper, Erie County executive
  • Charlie Dent, former congressman
  • Amanda Holt, Lehigh County commissioner
  • Rev. Robert Johnson, Tindley Temple United Methodist Church
  • Sharmain Matlock-Turner, president of the Urban Affairs Coalition
  • Wes Pegden, of Carnegie Mellon University
  • David Thornburgh, president of the Committee of Seventy
  • Secretary of the Commonwealth Robert Torres, or a designee
Senate Pres. Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati responds to the media following Gov. Tom Wolf's 2017-18 budget address at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

In the end, Wolf said, the Legislature still holds the cards when it comes to reform and "will need to stray away from polarization and work together."

Past failures, hopeful future success: Harrisburg political polarization was at the forefront of the unsuccessful redistricting efforts in the 2018-19 legislative session.

In the House, redistricting efforts were stonewalled after the House State Government Committee, led by Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler County, gutted two Democrat-sponsored redistricting proposals.

The proposals would have created an 11-person citizens' commission, but that language was removed, instead creating a six-person commission of legislators to draw congressional lines. 

In the Senate, a nearly identical 11-person citizens' commission bill was put forth by Boscola. But the Senate State Government Committee, led by Folmer, amended the bill to create an 11-legislator commission with four Democrats, four Republicans and three independents.

Unlike the House amendments, the more diverse commission proposed in Folmer's version received support from Fair Districts PA and other organizations.

But in June, the Senate passed a last-minute amendment that also would allow voters to make a choice about judicial district reform on the 2020 ballot. The amendment would divide the state into regional judicial districts, and judges would be elected by region as well.

Fair Districts PA and other organizations, including some legislators, opposed the efforts, accusing lawmakers of stripping away progress on passing redistricting reform. The bill remains tabled in the House.

However, Folmer has just reintroduced a bill that picks up where the redistricting legislation left off but without the amendment regarding judicial districts.

Even if passed, it won't be able to make it on the 2020 ballot. But Folmer said he is confident legislators will work together this time around.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.