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Over the Line: Life in the nation's most gerrymandered district

Written by Wallace McKelvey/PennLive | Nov 15, 2017 12:34 PM
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 Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional district sprawls across portions of five different counties. Its cartoonish shape has made it the poster child for gerrymandering nationwide. (Photo by Dan Gleiter/PennLive) 

(Pennsbury Township) -- The boundaries of Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District are so convoluted they befuddle even the office of its congressman.

U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan still sends mailers to residents of Kendal-Crosslands despite the fact that the Quaker-run retirement community was carved out of Meehan's district -- literally, in the shape of a dagger -- and is represented by Lloyd Smucker, who lives an hour away in Lancaster County.

Seniors are usually political catnip -- reliable voters with free time and disposable income -- but Kendal-Crosslands residents say their Republican lawmakers ignore their overtures. Quakers, it turns out, tend to vote Democratic and the community is home to more liberals than conservatives. When it came time to redraw district lines in 2011, its roughly 900 residents were punted from one district into another in order to spread out the Democratic vote across southeast Pennsylvania.

"Have you seen what we look like? We're a joke," said Bonnie Marcus, a Democratic poll worker who gathered a group of neighbors at the community center to talk gerrymandering.

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Bonnie Marcus (Photo by Dan Gleiter/PennLive)

"I don't think there's a way they can make it worse," Bill Van Wie chimed in.

"Of course they can," Marcus said, setting off a volley of laughter around the patio table.

"Well," Van Wie said, sheepishly, "that's not an invitation."

Pennsylvania's 7th has become the poster child for gerrymandering nationwide. When the lines were first announced, the ever-cheeky state Sen. Andy Dinniman held a contest to christen the new district. Dozens of constituents responded, suggesting names to describe its strange shape, and his office chose "Bullwinkle J. Moose." Since then, another cartoon-inspired description -- "Goofy kicking Donald Duck," coined by author David Daley -- gained traction.

"I just think it's crazy; there's no other name for it," said Val Arkoosh, who chairs the powerful Montgomery County Board of Commissioners.

Whenever a major issue requiring congressional action arises, Arkoosh's staff has to coordinate with five separate offices on Capitol Hill because the county is split amongst five districts. Montgomery County, she's quick to point out, is more populous than four states -- Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming -- yet none of its five congressmen reside there. A majority of voters in the county are Democrats yet three of their five congressmen are Republicans.

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When Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh comes across an issue requiring congressional attention, her staff has to coordinate with five separate offices on Capitol Hill. (Photo by Dan Gleiter/PennLive)

Gerrymandering always existed. Dinniman's own 19th state Senate district, for example, took on interesting new contortions with each map since the sixties. But the Chester County Democrat attributes this newfound fear of primaries to technology that allows mapmakers to single out neighborhoods, blocks and even individual homes based on the demographics and voting habits of their residents.

The process became less art, more science, and the resulting districts are less competitive.

Dinniman, who joined the state Senate in 2006, said the word "primary" used to be a noun. "Starting about eight years ago I began hearing it as a verb," he said, "as in 'I'm afraid I'm going to get primaried.'"

"If you're in a competitive district, it keeps you on your toes; you have to work hard, explain all your positions and listen to all points of view," he said. "If you're in a gerrymandered district, you don't have to do any of that unless you're challenged in a primary."

The evidence of gerrymandering is perhaps most obvious in the 7th.

In the district's northeast quadrant -- Donald Duck's tufts of hair or Bullwinkle's right antler -- you can weave in and out of the 7th multiple times driving a few miles in a straight line. The district careens wildly across five counties, including busy commercial corridors, picturesque rolling hillsides, suburban tract housing and quaint small towns.

In King of Prussia, two chunks of the 7th district are connected by an isthmus of land barely wider than the property line of Creed's Seafood and Steaks.

Jim Creed, like most successful restaurateurs, is sly and gregarious. Since 1982, Creed's was the favored local watering hole of political and business leaders--even a governor or two on occasion--and probably a few of the people responsible for those district lines.

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Jim Creed has run his namesake restaurant since 1982. Although it's perched on an isthmus of land connecting two chunks of the heavily gerrymandered 7th congressional district, he avoids discussing politics. (Photo by Dan Gleiter/PennLive)

"What happens at Creed's never happened," Creed said, with relish. Such is his personality that it's not obvious if that's a time-tested maxim or a quip designed to coax a laugh from visiting journalists.

Regardless, Creed didn't know about his unique placement until PennLive came to call. He's met Meehan before, at trade association functions, but never gave gerrymandering much thought. Neither is it a favored conversation starter at the bar, where Democrat and Republican pols come to unwind amid the lacquered wood and AM radio classics wafting from overhead speakers. Talking politics just isn't good for business.

"We like them all," the restaurateur said, "as long as their money's green or their credit cards get accepted."

A half hour's drive west-southwest of Creed's sits another silent testament to the gerrymander: the point where Goofy's foot connects with Donald Duck's rear.

The width of the district here is about the width of the Brandywine Hospital property. There are no voters, just a lot of sick people and puzzled hospital staff. (A state lawsuit challenging the lines misidentified the property as an endoscopy clinic, which happens to be just one part of the larger complex.)

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Brandywine Hospital, near Coatesville, sits at the point where Goofy's foot connects with Donald Duck's rear end in Pennsylvania's cartoonishly shaped 7th congressional district. (Photo by Dan Gleiter/PennLive)

At the entrance, an elderly volunteer is taken aback by the arrival of a news crew.

"Yes, I'm familiar," she said, when asked about gerrymandering. Instead of elaborating, she shook her head and turned to another visitor: "Are you being helped?"

Gerrymandering is something many people in the 7th are at least aware of. Fair Districts PA, a group lobbying to reform the system for drawing the maps, has active chapters in every county here. Thanks to those efforts, a growing number of municipalities passed resolutions supporting such changes in recent months. Despite this, most local officials--mayors, town managers, council members--are hesitant to speak publicly.

"You never know when you might need something," one local mayor said, politely declining an on-the-record, in-person interview. "If I badmouth my congressman, I may not get help when a bridge goes out."

A spokesman for Meehan did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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Democratic-majority Kennett Square was excised from the 7th to be included in the 16th. The borough's distinctive shape, a holdover of the original William Penn land grant, makes its exclusion particularly noticeable on district maps. (Photo by Dan Gleiter/PennLive)

 

In Kennett Square, a quaint village that dubs itself the "Mushroom Capital of the World" due to local agricultural industry, Wayne Braffman straddles the line between activist and official. He's careful to note when he's wearing the hat of borough councilman versus outreach chair of the Chester County branch of Fair Districts PA.

Like the Quaker retirement community, the Democratic-majority Kennett Square was excised from the 7th to be included in the 16th. The borough's square shape, a holdover of the original William Penn land grant, makes its exclusion particularly noticeable on district maps.

"It's obvious what the purpose was," said Braffman, speaking as activist, not councilman.

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Wayne Braffman is a Kennett Square borough councilman who's also involved with the redistricting reform advocacy group Fair Districts PA. (Photo by Dan Gleiter/PennLive)

Kennett Square's point of connection with the 16th district, which satisfies the state's contiguity requirement for drawing the maps, is a cemetery. As far as Braffman knows, there aren't any voters there, at least not active ones.

Beyond the fear of speaking out of turn, it's difficult to pinpoint specific, real-world consequences of gerrymandering. Such discussions end up sounding coldly academic: As both Braffman and Dinniman point out, incumbents in safe districts don't pay as much attention to their constituents, who come to realize that their votes don't matter and stop participating.

Elected officials become more partisan, leading to gridlock in D.C. and Harrisburg. Those with deep pockets--super PACs bolstered by millionaire donors--have more say than the average voter. And the politicians who draw the lines choose their voters to ensure their own survival.

But there are less nebulous consequences.

Arkoosh, a doctor by training, ran in the 2014 Democratic primary for the state's 13th Congressional District. The competition was fierce because of how the lines were drawn, like a crawfish with the body in North Philadelphia and two arms outstretched to pick up the city's more liberal suburban enclaves. The two top primary candidates were both from Philly while Arkoosh placed third.

The winner of the Democratic primary, former Rendell aide Brendan Boyle, trounced his Republican opponent that November. He took two-thirds of the vote in a district packed with registered Democrats who might otherwise have voted in the 7th or 8th districts. That may well have made the difference, since Republican majorities in those districts are much narrower: 59-41 in the 7th and 54-46 in the 8th during last year's congressional races.

Not having a county resident in Congress, Arkoosh said, probably means a lot of missed opportunities.

"There's no one who gets up every morning and says, 'What can I do for Montgomery County today?'" She said.

One concrete example of this is the fact that President Donald Trump's proposed budget gutted public transportation infrastructure funding that would be necessary for a $1 billion SEPTA rail expansion out to King of Prussia.

"In the inevitable horse-trading that happens to build a budget, is there going to be somebody that's really focused on how important that particular thing is to Montgomery County?" Arkoosh said. "I don't know the answer to that yet."

It's entirely possible that funding will be restored since presidential budget plans are little more than wish lists, often ignored or paid lip service to by the House and Senate. Still, Arkoosh said she'd feel more comfortable if she knew the county had at least one congressman of its own to champion the cause.

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The view from Val Arkoosh's fifth-floor office in Norristown. Can you tell where the 7th congressional district begins and ends? (Photo by Dan Gleiter/PennLive)

She meets many voters skeptical that their vote matters. For her, that erosion of faith in small-D democracy is the most troubling consequence of gerrymandering.

"I can't tell you how many times I hear, 'Why should I vote, it doesn't matter?'" Arkoosh said. "If that doesn't put the fear of the future of our Democracy into everybody's heart, people need to wake up."

It's a sentiment echoed by the retirees who gathered for an impromptu roundtable at Kendal-Crosslands. Each year, they invite lawmakers to speak to some 900 engaged, regular voters and each year those requests fall on deaf ears. Each Monday, a group of them gets together to write letters about a whole host of issues. When they get a reply, often it comes in a form letter. One of their officials recently sent a canned response about deer hunting... in response to a letter about health care.

Those kinds of anecdotes are common--and exasperating.

"I'm not asking that they always agree with my opinions," said Georgette Siegel, "but that they'd take them into account.

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Such is the sprawling nature of Pennsylvania's 7th that includes rural, suburban, urban and even forested land. (Photo by Dan Gleiter/PennLive)


Editor's note: This story is part of our redistricting series "Over the Line?", a collaboration among WITF, PennLive, Keystone Crossroads and other public media stations across the state.  

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