Wolf signals readiness for congressional district map talks

This round of drawing new congressional district boundaries is the first time in three decades where a Republican-controlled Legislature must share the task with a governor who is a Democrat.

  • Marc Levy/The Associated Press

(Harrisburg) —  Gov. Tom Wolf on Wednesday released the priorities for drawing Pennsylvania’s new congressional districts given to him by the panel he picked, signaling that he is ready to start discussions with Republicans who control the Legislature.

In theory, the principles given to Wolf will guide the Democrat in his dealings with Republican lawmakers, less than four years after a divided state Supreme Court redrew the map to replace a GOP-drawn map it judged to be unconstitutionally gerrymandered.

Wolf’s office did not make him available for an interview. But, in a statement, he said the state and nation “were founded on the ideals that voters freely select their own elected leaders, not the opposite way around.”

“The decision of whether to accept or veto the upcoming map will be one of my most important moments as governor and these principles will be crucial in guiding my review,” Wolf said.

This round of drawing new congressional district boundaries is the first time in three decades where a Republican-controlled Legislature must share the task with a governor who is a Democrat.

Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

William Marx points out one of the districts that crossed four counties as an image of the old congressional districts of Pennsylvania are projected on a wall in the classroom where he teaches civics in Pittsburgh on Friday, Nov. 16, 2018. Marx was a plaintiff in the Pennsylvania lawsuit that successfully challenged the Republican-drawn congressional maps. Marx said he believes the new district boundaries resulted in “a more fair congressional representation of the will of the people in Pennsylvania.”

By all accounts, conversations between Wolf’s office and Republican lawmakers on a congressional map have been light. Republican leaders have introduced no map of districts into legislation, and did not accept invitations to discuss the matter Wednesday.

Voters are to pick candidates running in new districts in next November’s midterm election. About 20 states have already approved new congressional maps for 2022’s election, although some are facing gerrymandering claims in courts.

Wolf’s redistricting council held nine “listening sessions” throughout the state in October and November.

Their principles, summed up in a four-page document, include anti-gerrymandering bulwarks such as making sure districts have compact shapes, split as few political subdivisions as possible and reflect the state’s prevailing political tastes, with enough competitive districts to stay in step with changing voter sentiments.

The council also recommended that Wolf “disfavor” a map that is passed swiftly by lawmakers, with limited debate or public consideration. In 2011, Republican lawmakers unveiled a map and gave it final approval a week later.

The principles make no mention of ensuring incumbents have their own district in which to seek reelection. That was a priority for Republican legislative majorities in 2001 and 2011, which they defended as preserving the will of voters.

In the past, Wolf has been hostile to the idea of tailoring districts to help incumbents win reelection, saying in 2018 — amid the court’s move to redraw district boundaries — that “incumbents will probably have a great interest in preserving their lack of competitiveness.”

With an 18-member congressional delegation, Pennsylvania sends the fifth-most members to Congress, in a tie with Illinois.

Currently, the delegation is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. But, with two Pittsburgh-area Democrats — Conor Lamb and Mike Doyle — not seeking reelection, the area’s districts likely face significant changes, especially because a stagnant population makes it the most practical place to eliminate a district.

Pennsylvania’s task is complicated by the need to shrink down to 17 districts to replace its 18 districts, reflecting U.S. Census findings that Pennsylvania’s population grew more slowly over the past decade than the rest of the nation.

FILE PHOTO: William Marx, points to projected images of the old congressional districts of Pennsylvania on top, and the new re-drawn districts on the bottom, while standing in the classroom where he teaches civics in Pittsburgh on Friday, Nov. 16, 2018.

Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

FILE PHOTO: William Marx, points to projected images of the old congressional districts of Pennsylvania on top, and the new re-drawn districts on the bottom, while standing in the classroom where he teaches civics in Pittsburgh on Friday, Nov. 16, 2018.

Wolf has the ability to veto anything passed by the Legislature.

If Wolf and the Legislature cannot agree on a map, it could be left to the state Supreme Court to draw districts again before Feb. 15, when candidates can start circulating petitions to get on the May 17 primary ballot.

What makes Republicans nervous is that the state Supreme Court has a 5-2 Democratic majority, giving Wolf political leverage.

There is a precedent for the court’s intervention, after the 1990 census when a Republican-controlled Legislature shared power with a Democratic governor, Robert P. Casey.

When lawmakers couldn’t pass a plan, Democratic lawmakers sued and the court ultimately selected one of the plaintiffs’ proposed maps, choosing from among competing plans submitted by different groups of lawmakers.

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