New map could shake up 9th District fight

Political notebook

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling last week to toss out the state’s congressional maps could have serious effects on the growing race to replace Rep. Bill Shuster, R-9th District, and it could even leave some candidates residing outside the district.

Praised by Democrats and redistricting advocates but swiftly challenged by state Republicans, the ruling sets a tight timeline for politicians in Harrisburg to make new, fairer maps.

The General Assembly has until Feb. 9 to submit a plan and until Feb. 15 to make a deal with Gov. Tom Wolf — after that, the court is set to draw its own map.

It comes just as more candidates add their names to the growing list seeking to replace Shuster upon his retirement. And at least two of those candidates will likely have to vote on the map itself, raising concerns from their opponents.

“The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s activist decision should come as no surprise, as it was fostered by decades of blatant gerrymandering by career politicians in both parties in Harrisburg,” Art Halvorson, a Manns Choice developer seeking the Republican nomination, said in a written statement. “The General Assembly has an opportunity to finally draw congressional districts in a nonpartisan manner rather than using the process as a lever of power.”

Halvorson expressed hope that two GOP opponents in the General Assembly — Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, and Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana — won’t involve themselves in the process.

That is a particularly delicate issue for Reed — who, as House majority leader, would typically play a key role in drawing up a new map.

Reed has told reporters there would be no conflict, but a spokesman noted that he will not be involved in the mapmaking process, WITF reported.

“He is taking a step back to avoid any possible, even discussion of a conflict,” Reed aide Steve Miskin said.

Eichelberger told the station he will seek confirmation that his campaign does not qualify as a conflict of interest before he votes on the proposed maps.

He backed fellow state Republicans who laid into the Supreme Court decision, which could open several more congressional districts to Democratic challenges this November.

“This is an unprecedented action by the court, which lacks the legal authority to do what they just did,” Eichelberger said in a blog post last week.

Unless the Legislature gets a stay or a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court, however, they will be on a tight deadline to draw a fairer map. The state court ruled that the snaking, awkwardly shaped districts that make up the current map violate the constitution.

Whether their ruling will chop up or move the 9th District remains to be seen.

The court issued some directives: The new districts “must be composed of compact and contiguous territory; as nearly equal in population as practicable; and which do not divide any county, city, incorporated town, borough, township, or ward, except where necessary to ensure equality of population,” the judges said.

Experts and analysts have drawn up a collection of “what-if” maps since the gerrymandering lawsuit was first filed, many eliminating the squiggly lines and strange shapes that exist now. One, made by the New York Times with more equitable boundaries, would extend the 9th District from Huntingdon County to near Pittsburgh, cutting out some of the outlying areas Shuster currently represents.

Under the hypothetical plan, U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus’ 12th District would shift completely to the Pittsburgh suburbs where he lives (maps are often drawn to protect incumbents’ seats).

The new map could do just about anything to the 9th District, including cutting candidates’ homes out of it. That would not necessarily force them from the race, as congressional candidates don’t have to live in the districts where they run.

Even if Wolf and the Legislature come to an agreement in time, it won’t leave the candidates with much time to prepare. The deadline comes just weeks before the candidacy deadline and three months before the primary.

Republicans step back from early votes

While the list of 9th District candidates grows longer, top Blair County Republicans have agreed not to back any candidates — for the congressional race or any others — before the May primary.

On Monday, county party Chairwoman Lois Kaneshiki said the Blair County committee voted unanimously against endorsing candidates before voters get their chance.

Committee members have urged their representatives in the state party to follow the vote and refrain from picking candidates on Feb. 10, when the state GOP gathers.

State Republican officials often pick their preferred candidates months before primaries, making their choices known while rank-and-file voters are still learning about their options. Anti-establishment Republicans like Kaneshiki have long fought that practice, backing rule changes that would end it statewide.

“We believe the people should choose their candidates. That’s what the primary election is for,” Kaneshiki said in a written statement.

“We are one of only three state Republican committees in the nation that endorse candidates before the primary. What’s the rush? Let the people get to know their candidates.”

The state GOP typically backs high-level candidates in advance: If officials don’t agree on one of four gubernatorial hopefuls next month, it would mark the first time they haven’t in

40 years.

Ryan Brown can be reached at rbrown@altoonamirror.com.

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