Ever hear of something in Philadelphia called “the Arlen Specter library”? Me neither. But the small facility on the Philadelphia University campus in East Falls — near the longtime home of the late U.S. senator, officially called the Arlen Specter Center for Public Service — played an oversized role in creating Pennsylvania’s bad legislative map, which in turn has created a decade of lousy policies and lousier politicians and is now threatening a constitutional crisis involving the legislature, Gov. Wolf, and the state’s highest court.
The secret history begins in 2010, when Democrats were politically besotted with Barack Obama’s newish presidency and thus had no idea what was about to hit them, here or around the country. In suburban locales like the Berks County district represented by then-State Rep. David Kessler, a Democrat, most lawmakers had grown used to a) political obscurity and b) easy reelection.
So Kessler and his colleagues like then-Rep. David Levdansky from outside Pittsburgh were stunned when, just days before the November 2010 election, voters’ mailboxes were stuffed to the gills with fliers accusing them of wasting a whopping $600 million in taxpayer money for a “Taj Mahal” of an Arlen Specter library (at a moment that Specter had achieved the rare feat of angering both conservatives and liberals by switching parties in a failed bid for reelection).
“I could have been running against that salt shaker and I would have lost,” Kessler later said as he sat in a diner and spoke with author David Daley, whose colorfully named Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy is the definitive book on how gerrymandering has ruined our politics. “Because it all came down to those mailers.” Their deceitful nature — the actual cost of the modestly refurbished, not-Taj-Mahal facility was $1.9 million, a small slice of $600 million in statewide economic development grants — was key to their success.
When Democrats like Kessler and Levdansky and several Democratic colleagues lost that Election Day and Republican Tom Corbett was elected governor, it gave the GOP almost total control over the maps that would create an incumbency-protection racket for Republicans in both Harrisburg and Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation, for what they thought would be the next decade.
While Republicans were mapping, Democrats were napping. The seemingly brain-dead party didn’t realize that national Republicans and their top experts like Karl Rove had devised a secret plan called REDMAP (Redistricting Majority Project) that targeted a relatively small number of off-the-radar state legislative races, with the goal of eventually computer-mapping districts to create a nationwide GOP law-writing majority for the 2010s and possibly beyond. The stealth operation was funded with tens of millions of dollars in political cash from the likes of Comcast, AT&T, tobacco giant Altria, and the titans of Big Oil — the same companies who have benefited handsomely from laws since enacted by an untouchable GOP majority.
How successful was the Republican project to redraw the maps? In 2012, the first election after the REDMAP-backed gerrymandering, Democrats nationally earned 1.7 million more votes for the U.S. House than Republicans, amid the reelection of Barack Obama — and yet the GOP actually added 33 seats to its majority. Here in Pennsylvania, not a single U.S. House seat has flipped since 2010 in a delegation that boasts 13 Republicans and only five Democrats, despite Democrats typically getting half of the commonwealth’s votes every two years.
“The danger of gerrymandering is that it really insulates these politicians from the voters,” Daley told me this week by phone. He said that “not only are elected politicians indebted to donors who put them in office — but it makes it impossible for the rest of us to turn them out.”
That led to the somewhat shocking developments in recent weeks that occurred after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court (which did flip statewide during the 2010s to Democratic control, since justices are elected statewide and thus not subject to gerrymandering) ruled in a lawsuit by activists that the current gerrymander is so partisan and so extreme that it denies the voting rights promised in the Pennsylvania Constitution. Since then, top Pennsylvania GOP lawmakers have threatened to defy the court, impugned the integrity of some of the justices, and even entertained the wild idea of impeaching the high court’s Democratic majority. The frantic reaction only proved that gerrymandering is the oxygen that today’s idea-deprived Republicans need to survive.
When their initial pushback sparked outrage, state House Speaker Mike Turzai and Senate Majority Leader Joe Scarnati did produce a map — although it wasn’t voted on by the rank-and-file — and asked Wolf to sign on. At a quick glance, it sure looks better than the old map, adding compact and reasonable-looking districts at the expense of the wild Rorschach-test absurdities of the 2011-12 blueprint. But a detailed analysis by the Washington Post said, in essence, don’t be fooled by appearances. For one thing, the better-looking map still would produce (based on past voting patterns) a 13-5 GOP majority in our evenly divided state. It also makes a mockery of the present political situation by making sure that two rising Democrats — Chrissy Houlahan in the Sixth, Conor Lamb in the 18th — no longer live in the districts where they are running.
On Tuesday morning, Wolf rejected this latest GOP map ploy — and that was the right move. That puts the ball back in the state Supreme Court’s court, and the justices’ stated plan of turning ultimately to an out-of-state nonpolitical mapping expert, Nathan Persily of Stanford University, may be the only somewhat fair option for this year. But then what, with the 2020 census and the next redistricting already close at hand?
The power of mapping is way too important to be left to the politicians, especially in an age when computers can perform democratic amputations that the Founding Fathers never could have envisioned. While the GOP has gamed the system to the extreme, Democrats also created fairly radical gerrymanders in the rare states like Maryland where that party controlled the legislature and the governor’s office in 2011. Roughly a half-dozen states — most notably California — have turned to supposedly nonpartisan citizen commissions, but Daley said the results have been mixed, in part because it’s impossible to divorce politics from key parts of the process.
So how do you end partisan gerrymandering — and the destruction of American democracy? The advocacy group FairVote, where author Daley, the former editor of Salon, is now a senior fellow, backs a fairly radical solution through legislation called the Fair Representation Act. It would replace the current 435 winner-take-all districts with larger districts where voters would rank several choices to pick 3, 4, or 5 representatives.
For example, imagine if Pennsylvania — instead of the current 18 individual congressional districts — had only six districts with voters ranking their choices, and the top 3 in each jurisdiction were sent to Washington. That would increase the odds that a place like the Philadelphia suburbs, currently represented by three Republicans, would pick at least one Democrat, while a Republican could win election in a Democratic city like Pittsburgh or maybe even Philadelphia.
“It incentivizes politicians to run a different kind of campaign,” Daley said. “You might elect people who want to work together to solve problems” — rather than extremists only worried about protecting their right or left flank in a party primary.
I think it would be a tough sell. America is, after all, a winner-take-all kind of nation. (Can you imagine, after that thrilling Super Bowl, if the Eagles were handed two mini-Vince Lombardi Trophys, while Tom Brady and the Patriots were given a third?) But we need to consider radical solutions like this, at a moment when U.S. democracy seems more broken than at any time since the Civil War. Think of it this way: Do we want a Congress that is sponsored by the Comcasts and ExxonMobils of the world, or by Voters Like You?