New districts create disputes

The state Supreme Court unanimously upheld a redistricting plan Wednesday that could pit two Cambria County Democratic representatives against each next year.

The court’s three Republicans and three Democratic justices ruled the new plan developed by Legislative Reapportionment Commission is constitutional, even if it takes political considerations into account.

The new boundaries for the 50 Senate and 203 House seats will take effect with the 2014 elections.

While local Republican seats are generally safe under the new plan, the changes could pit two Democratic state representatives from Cambria County against each other.

Both state Rep. Frank Burns, D-East Taylor and state Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Patton, live in what will be the 72nd House District. If both run, they would face off the 2014 primary.

“That’s the district. You just need to run in the district,” Haluska said, noting that strategizing was difficult as the proposed maps changed repeatedly as the redistricting dispute has dragged on.

The state Supreme Court rejected an earlier redistricting plan last year saying it split too many municipalities and counties.

The new approved plan effectively reduces Cambria County’s three Democratic House seats to a possible two, with freshman state Rep. Tommy Sankey, R-Osceola Mills, set to move into the 73rd District that would incorporate southern Clearfield County and northwestern Cambria County. Sankey’s current 74th District will jump to the Philadelphia area, the maps indicate.

“Tommy Sankey from the former 74th District here,” Sankey said with a laugh in a phone call Wednesday.

Sankey said he’ll have to knock on doors and build up name recognition in the parts of Cambria County for which he’ll soon be fighting. But with much of the area rural and socially similar to his home county, Sankey said he isn’t deeply concerned.

“It’s not always fair to the constituents. But it’s the constitution; it’s how you’ve got to do things,” he said.

Like the federal government, the state is required to redraw legislative districts after every decennial census to reflect changes in population.

Republicans held a 3-2 majority on the Legislative Reapportionment Commission.

In rejecting challenges by Democrats and others on Wednesday, the court ruled that political considerations are not forbidden in drawing district maps.

“Political parties may seek partisan advantage to their proverbial heart’s content, so long as they do so within the constraints of [the law],” Chief Justice Ronald Castille’s majority opinion stated.

The ruling will likely hurt the Cambria County Democrats, who still hold a roughly two-to-one edge over Republicans in registration, county party Chairman Heath Long said.

“It appears that it would make it more difficult for us,” Long said Wednesday. “We’ve looked at the numbers several times. And then, when we formulate a strategy, they change.”

In Blair, Bedford and Huntingdon counties, the House changes appear less monumental. State Rep. Mike Fleck, R-Huntingdon, is on track to lose Tyrone and northern Blair County, shifting almost wholly to his home county, while state Rep. Jerry Stern, R-Martinsburg, takes over the areas Fleck leaves.

Portions of Allegheny Township will shift from Stern’s district to the 79th, currently held by John McGinnis, R-Altoona.

And a few townships in rural northwestern Bedford County will transfer from Dick Hess, R-Bedford’s 78th to the 69th, currently represented by Carl Metzgar, R-Berlin.

In the Senate, state Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, is set to pick up parts of Franklin and Cumberland counties while losing all of Bedford County. Bedford will move to the 35th Senate District, currently represented by state Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria.

Wozniak lambasted the new maps in a prepared statement Wednesday.

“With a district that, under this plan, stretches 150 miles end to end, it will be very challenging to serve all constituents in all communities equally considering the distance,” Wozniak said. “While I respect the court’s decision on this matter, I do believe that this map is incredibly short-sighted.”

Heavily Republican Bedford County could be a drag on Wozniak’s district, which now stretches from the Maryland border to the northern edge of Clearfield County. The new map is set to make Wozniak Bedford County’s first Democratic state senator since 1882.

Last summer, Eichelberger said it would be strange to wake up and find he no longer represented an entire county.

“It’s the oddest experience that I’ve ever been through,” he said at the time.