Shuster successor may see changing district

The maneuvering began within moments of Rep. Bill Shuster’s announcement that he will not seek re-election this year: Potential candidates for the now-open 9th District seat made their statements and reached out to allies in hopes of representing more than 700,000 people.

But the winner this November could inherit a district far different from the one Shuster represents. And in two or three years, he or she could face a brand-new electoral map — or a district that’s been eliminated entirely.

Shuster’s retirement from Congress — capping a 17-year career and a powerful role in GOP leadership — comes as a redistricting battle heats up and a national census approaches in 2020. The departure of a veteran representative adds a new dimension to the district’s fortunes as new maps are drawn up.

It comes down partly to the fight over gerrymandering, the practice in which ruling parties draw districts to keep their hold on power. Critics have long pointed to Pennsylvania as one of the nation’s most gerrymandered states, with districts snaking through unrelated cities and counties to rope more of the majority party’s voters into regions where control is virtually assured.

The fight led to a state lawsuit last year, with voters in each district challenging Pennsylvania’s maps. One plaintiff cited the 5th District, represented by Republican Glenn “GT” Thompson, which cuts into the Erie area enough to split the largely Democratic population there in two.

“You can’t rule out the possibility that the districts could be withdrawn,” G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, said in an interview after Shuster’s announcement. “But it’s still a long shot.”

The case took a hit in the Commonwealth Court last month, when a judge acknowledged that the districts were drawn to Republicans’ benefit but said there is no clear legal case for redrawing them. It is now set for the state Supreme Court, dominated by Democratic judges.

If those seeking a new map win, the state’s lines could be withdrawn almost immediately — leaving several more seats open to Democratic challenges in November.

While the 9th District remains deeply conservative, a new map could dent the GOP lead and give a Democratic candidate a shot of hope.

Congressional Republicans are still banking on an easy win: The chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee told reporters last week, “PA-09 is a solidly red district, and we look forward to electing the next Republican leader to represent it.”

Whether the maps stay the same or change this year, another shift remains on the horizon for Shuster’s successor.

A national Census is set for 2020, and analysts have repeatedly said Pennsylvania’s stagnant population could cause the state to lose a House seat to a fast-growing state elsewhere. Pennsylvania has consistently shed seats for decades, with 17 or even 16 seats projected after 2020, from a high of 36 in the 1930s.

A lost seat could cause the state map to be drastically redrawn. The 9th District has gained and lost entire counties since Shuster’s father, Bud Shuster, was in office, and before the 1970s, it wasn’t even located in central Pennsylvania.

Which seat is eliminated depends on many factors, including representatives’ relative clout and the party that controls Harrisburg.

That means that, unless Pennsylvania adopts a less politically partisan system of mapmaking — such as a computer-generated model, as some experts have recommended — upcoming elections for the governor and Legislature could carry even greater significance.

Pa. fights pot order

A memo U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued Thursday to expand federal marijuana prosecutions drew a swift and angry reaction even from many Republicans, demonstrating marijuana’s importance as it becomes legal in many states.

Sessions revoked a Department of Justice recommendation from President Barack Obama’s administration that urged federal prosecutors to hold back on less egregious marijuana cases in states where it has been legalized. While the drug remains illegal at the federal level, Obama took a more hands-off approach in states that allow the drug medically and recreationally.

Marijuana supporters fear Sessions’ ruling could create havoc in states like Colorado and now in California, which opened recreational access to marijuana this month. Its impact is less clear in Pennsylvania, which is only now opening access to medicinal marijuana, although not in plant or edible form.

Even Republican voters — and many politicians — now support medicinal marijuana, while a growing majority of the U.S. population also backs legal recreational use. The shift was clear from reactions to the Sessions memo.

A representative for Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., told the Philadelphia Inquirer the senator “continues to believe that the federal government should help facilitate research into marijuana for legitimate medical purposes,” while some Republican state representatives have questioned the move.

The Sessions rule may not have an immediate effect on the medical industry: A 2014 Senate spending rule bars the government from spending money to stop state medical marijuana laws. But that rule could be revoked any year, throwing more uncertainty into the budding industry.

In a statement, Gov. Tom Wolf challenged any effort to interfere with the state’s laws.

“The Trump administration must put patients’ rights first, and I will not stand for backward attacks on the progress made in Pennsylvania to provide medicine to those in need,” he said.

Ryan Brown can be reached at rbrown@altoonamirror.com

COMMENTS