Baer: The gerrymander slayer: Meet PA's grandma on a mission

Carol Kuniholm of the the group Fair Districts PA is geared to go against state gerrymandering. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer.

CAROL KUNIHOLM of Exton, a 61-year old grandmother of three, is on a mission most view impossible: Get gerrymandering out of Pennsylvania politics.

She's a Mount Vernon, N.Y., native who grew up as "the poorest kid in a pretty wealthy community" with good schools that she says shaped her life. She has a Penn PhD in American literature, and worked as a youth pastor with at-risk kids in Philly's Kensington neighborhood. She and her husband have three grown children. He works for the American Bible Society in Philly's historic district.

Now she's running Fair Districts PA, an effort aimed at ending gerrymandering - the practice of politicians drawing congressional and legislative district lines to protect themselves by diminishing or extinguishing electoral competition.

Pennsylvania is routinely ranked among the nation's most gerrymandered states.

For more than a year, Kuniholm's been pushing electoral reform hard on social media and at public meetings. She's talking and working with state lawmakers and groups affiliated with the effort, including the Committee of Seventy, Common Cause, the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, and the Commonwealth Foundation.

She says she's watching interest grow in gerrymandering. And she knows a thing or two about watching and growing. She's an avid birdwatcher and a native-plant gardener (somebody who studies what plants should be growing where you live). She recently chatted with political columnist John Baer.

Q What got you involved in trying to end gerrymandering?

I haven't really been much involved in politics. I'm an unaffiliated voter. But my work as a youth pastor at the Episcopal Church of the Good Samaritan in Paoli and the Free Church of St. John in Kensington got me interested in education funding.

I didn't understand it but found school funding inequity in Pennsylvania listed worst in the nation and learned that one's zip code completely determined opportunity and education, and I think that's wrong. That led me to learning about the political process, which led to learning about gerrymandering, and that led to experts telling me, "Pick your issue, until we fix gerrymandering we're not fixing anything."

Q The issue's been around forever. Why now?

It's a fresh and personal issue for me. And new technology, data-mining, and our wide-open campaign finance laws make it easier than in the past to keep it going. We were ranked by the Electoral Integrity Project (an international academic independent study out of Harvard and the University of Sydney in Australia) as the third-worst gerrymandered state, behind only Wisconsin and North Carolina.

Q Got an example?

The city of Reading is a poster child for gerrymandering. It's in the 16th congressional district (west of Philly with a big chunk of Chester County and most of Lancaster County), which includes a little loop that captures Reading.

The city, after the 2010 census, was identified as the poorest urban community in the country, and as late as last year it had the most underfunded school district in the country. So thanks to gerrymandering, it's put into a geographically large district with Lancaster County farmers and so has no real representation.

Q What gives you hope you can end gerrymandering?

In the past, people started too late. It needs to be changed after the next census in 2020. To change it means passing state legislation in two successive (two-year) terms, then getting a ballot question to voters calling for an independent citizens' commission to draw the lines (currently done by legislative leaders).

So, last year in January after being told by everybody that reform's not possible in Pennsylvania and after thinking, well, that's unacceptable, I built a website (fairdistrictspa.com - with a pretty funny video featuring "Rep. Jerry Mandering"), got on Facebook and Twitter, and started pushing reform. And I think it is doable.

Q What, specifically, makes you think so?

There are good people in the legislature who think it's time for a change. Average legislators see this reform as taking power away from legislative leaders who use gerrymandering for control, to take them out in primaries, to control bills, and that's not the way it should work.

Also, since the (2016) election, a lot of ordinary people are saying "We have to pay attention to government and understand the systems in place and begin to change them."

Q So what are you doing?

Lots of public meetings, just this January, 15 of them.

We expected a decent crowd at Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, we got 800. We expected maybe 100 at a church in Allentown, we got 400 people. We're going to Rotary clubs, local League of Women Voters groups. I spoke at a retirement community in Bucks County where we expected 50 people. We got 180.

We scheduled 26 events throughout February and more than that in March.

Q Since Republicans now control the process, won't you face criticism that this is just part of a Democratic agenda?

There will be those who say, "You're just upset because you lost" and those who say "Oh, you're funded by (billionaire Democrat George) Soros." I'd love Soros to come fund us. But our backing is from individuals, everyday people and a very small amount from the organizations involved in our effort, really anybody interested in democracy. We want to see government working properly.

Q What's next?

Well, this is the polite education and invite phase. Next is the argue/listening phase with larger groups and signs. Remember, the League of Women Voters grew out of the women's suffrage movement, which, if you recall, wasn't going to happen. . .I'm not wasting my life.