Plan: Phila. loses House seat, Chesco gains, Upper Darby split

The commission charged with considering competing proposals to redraw Pennsylvania's state legislative districts has given preliminary approval to a GOP-drafted plan that would leave Philadelphia with one less House seat, give Chester County a new seat and reconfigure Upper Darby in both House and Senate districts.

By a 3-2 vote today the Legislative Reapportionment Commission - made up of the two GOP and two Democratic legislative leaders, plus an independent chairman - approved a plan that shifts western districts with declining populations to faster-growing areas in the east and south central parts of the state.

The so-called "reapportionment" process is designed to recraft legislative districts to reflect population changes documented in the once-a-decade census figures, but it is often fueled with politics.

The vote was split along partisan lines:  the two Republicans, House Majority leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) and Senate Majority leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) supporting it and the two Democratic leaders, House Minority leader Frank Dermody (D., Allegheny) and Senate Minority leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) opposed.

Commission chairman Stephen J. McEwan Jr. , president judge emeritus of the state Superior Court and a former Republican Delaware County district attorney, cast the deciding vote in favor of the plan.

Dermody and Costa blasted their Republican counterparts, saying after months of negotiations they had only 30 minutes to review the final plans before they voted.

"This is not about fairness to the people of Pennsylvania, this is about maintaining a majority," said Dermody.

But Turzai and Pileggi described the plan as "fair" and said it met constitutional and statutory requirements.

"It addresses population shifts over the past 20 years," said Pileggi.

Costa countered that the plan was neither fair nor reasonable and did not follow population changes.

"It was a raw politically partisan exercise," he said.

Under the plan, the 169th seat in northeast Philadelphia represented by Rep. Dennis O'Brien, a Republican, since 1977 would be moved to York County and the district divvied up among surrounding Democrats. 

While Philadelphia's population has edged up slightly since the 2001 census, it has not grown at the same rate as other parts of the state, particularly the northeast and south-central Pennsylvania.

"We couldn't justify not putting a seat in York," said Turzai.

The fast-growing region of southern Chester County, specifically the Downingtown/Coatesville area, would gain a new House seat shifted from a shrinking area in the southwest.

Democrats accuse the Republicans of playing politics with the Delaware County map, which they say reshapes Upper Darby to send its growing minority and Democratic population into Democratic legislative districts while preserving the districts now controlled by Republicans.

In the House Upper Darby, which is now split between one Republican and one Democratic legislative district, the 163th and 164th, would be carved up again, adding parts of the 166th represented by Democratic Rep. Greg Vitali. In the Senate it shifts GOP heavy parts of the municipality into Sen. Ted Erickson's district (26th), while sending Democratic areas into the 8th district represented by Sen. Anthony H. Williams.

Democrats say the plan isolates minority voters and aims to preserve threatened Republican seats.

Rep. Greg Vitali and Rep. Margo Davidson, both Democrats from Delaware County, will have their districts solidified with additional Democratic voters. Rep. Nick Micozzie, a Republican, would see his district gain more GOP voters. Vitali and Davidson say the voters lose in the effort to protect incumbents.

"It helps the politicians and hurts the communities," said Vitali, whose hometown, Haverford Township, would be cut in two. "It clearly violates the constitutional provision to keep municipalities intact."

The vote starts the clock on a 30-day public comment period before a final decision is made ahead of the 2012 election year. A hearing is scheduled for Nov. 18 at noon in the state Capitol's North Office Building.

The state’s congressional districts will be redrawn later in a process handled by legislation, and will have to account for the loss of a seat, reducing the state’s delegation from 19 to 18.



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