Pat Meehan's district: A trippin' road trip through Pennsylvania's most gerrymandered Land of Make Believe | Maria Panaritis

It took more than four hours, but Inquirer and Daily News columnist Maria Panaritis checked out just some of the wildly gerrymandered Seventh Congressional District in Pennsylvania. What she saw on this trip was a trip – and not in a good way.

When I headed out on Gerrymander Journey a few days ago with a political operative of my choosing, I figured the most drama to come out of Pennsylvania’s Seventh Congressional District would involve me dodging attitude in Delaware County or Amish horses and buggies out west.

But Republicans are in a gift-giving mood after years of sucking electoral spoils out of this GOP district they drew in 2013. In a major karmic comedown, they were ordered last week to give the Seventh back, more or less. And then their longtime puppy-dog incumbent in the district decided to pile on as Rep. Pat Meehan, in an act of astounding self-immolation, insisted that the world accept his own very peculiar definition of the words “soul mate.”

By the end of this column, I hope Republicans take a bow — every last one of them. Because all this? Really, you shouldn’t have. It’s not even Valentine’s Day yet.

I had asked Joe Corrigan to join me as I toured the district with a Machiavellian reputation. This is the most gerrymandered in the country, they say, product of highly effective lowbrow political art. Coursing through slivers of five counties outside Philadelphia, it looks like a piece of construction paper that a kid at pre-K mauled with plastic scissors.

Before the Seventh was redrawn to look like a district someone had blasted a hole through with a shotgun (if you don’t buy the pre-K metaphor), Joe had worked an unsuccessful campaign against Meehan. Since I’d once hired a guide to keep me alive in the Sahara, I figured Joe should do the same here. After all, the GOP had turned this into its own version of a democratic desert.

When we met last week the state Supreme Court had just thrown out all of Pennsylvania’s congressional districts. Justices found them unconstitutional because Republicans, who controlled the state at the time, had drawn them to deny Democrats a fair chance at ever winning.

That means farewell to a Mickey Mouse drawing that some people say looks like Goofy kicking Donald Duck — but that I’d say looks more like an Etch A Sketch in the hands of a toddler tripping on acid. (Now do you get it?)

I had to see this jawn for myself at eye level.

I am now bringing this jawn to you, too.

And so, in the immortal words of the late Mr. Rogers from his Neighborhood of Make Believe — won’t you come along?

Gerrymander Journey: A trippin’ road trip through Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District.

It wasn’t pretty, but columnist Maria Panaritis visited this maniacally drawn district for hours on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018. Wanna see what she saw? Check this out.
JARED WHALEN / Staff Graphic

11:30 a.m.

I dump a fistful of quarters into a parking meter  in the pouring rain, throw my Inquirer umbrella into Joe’s Ford Fusion and hop into the passenger seat with a notebook on my lap and a bottle of water in his cup holder. I plug in my iPhone to charge.

The deal: Joe gets 20 bucks for gas, and a hoagie for his trouble.

We’re in Media, a waning Republican stronghold of Delaware County. For a long time it has formed the core of the Seventh. Until recently, its GOP machine was fearsomely entrenched and untouchable.

It takes us less than 10 minutes to get to Chester, a Democratic, impoverished, and predominantly African American city in Delco.

The GOP shrewdly grabbed just a sliver of Chester for the Seventh. On one block, we see a house with a blue American flag in a window, honoring police and firefighters. On another, a parked car with a bumper sticker: “Read the Bible before they read it at your funeral.”

Noon:

Wheee!!! We’re flying up I-476! So FUN!

What’s that to the right, you ask? Why, it’s corporate campuses in affluent Blue Bell, Montgomery County.

We had to pass through a Star Trekkian void to get to this Promised Land of Corporate Largess.

When we left Chester on I-476, we were in the Seventh. As we barreled toward Democrat-dominant Norristown on I-476, we were no longer in the Seventh. As we got to Blue Bell on I-476, we were back.

12:29 p.m.:

Where are we?

Rolling hills. A ski resort a few minutes away.

“Are they hay bales up ahead, through those trees?” Joe asks, as though he’s trying to pinch himself. “Yes, they are.”

Camera icon MARIA PANARITIS / Staff
Rural Garges Road in Schwenksville, Montomery County, pictured here on Jan. 23, 2018 near Perkiomen Creek, are a short drive from a ski resort and nearly an hour drive from the impoverished city of Chester, Delaware County, which is in the same Congressional District. The 7th district is considered the most gerrymandered in the nation and touches five different counties in suburban Philadelphia.

We’ve made it to one of the northernmost borders of the Seventh, two-lane Garges Road right before it crosses Perkiomen Creek, Skippack Township, Montgomery County.

We go to Skippack’s adorably quaint shopping district, where I ask The Coffee Grinder shop owner Tina Shelly to take a look at the map on my iPhone.

“Do you know what you’re looking at?” I ask her.

“No,” she says.

I tell her.

“It’s odd,” said Shelly, 60, a Democrat. “Why does it even have those kind of borders? Why isn’t it square?”

We leave to head west. Joe wonders if he was once up here as a kid to buy bunnies. He warns me that we’re in for a loooong ride.

“So,” he says. “Intercourse is an hour and a half away.”

The town, of course.

2:17 p.m.

Bless its name, this little place in Lancaster County.

We roared down Route 422 to get here, but still, it was brutal. We had to cut across a large section of Chester County not in the Seventh, including heavily Democratic communities.

The Amish are everywhere.

Camera icon MARIA PANARITIS / Staff
An Amish horse and buggy is parked near a farm in Intercourse, Pa., Lancaster County, in Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District, on Jan. 23, 2018. The district, considered the most gerrymandered in the country, includes portions of five counties outside Philadelphia.

 

We make our way to modest homes on Evergreen Street at Lilac Avenue. I knock on Carroll Moore’s door. She’s waiting for an Amish man to come chop her tree down.

I ask the 85-year-old widow and self-described far-right Republican who her congressman is.

“Smucker,” she says, wrongly assuming that her guy is actually Lloyd Smucker, who represents most every other part of Lancaster County.

Then, I show her the map on my phone.

“I didn’t know it was so scattered,” Carroll says.

I tell her the district belongs to Meehan. Does that name a ring a bell, I ask?

“Isn’t he the guy that they’re asking him to leave because he’s involved in a sex scandal?” Carroll says.

(And this was before Meehan would tell the world that he’d come to view a decades-younger aide as a soul mate, even though she filed a formal harassment complaint against the 62-year-old father of there. What a district! What a country!)

Carroll tells me she adores President Trump and radio host Rush Limbaugh. She says moderate Republicans, not Democrats, are the real scourge in GOP-controlled Washington. But at least the gerrymandered Seventh, she says, belongs to her team.

She gives the map one last look and says: “They drew it so that Republicans would be the winners.”

3:49 p.m.

We pull into a hoagie shop in Media. It hurts to get out of the car after being glued to that seat for so long.

As I finally head for home, I see the story about Meehan blowing up. The soul-mate one. A hot mess on top off the hot mess that is the Seventh.

I had just seen nothing vaguely resembling a cohesive legislative district. There wasn’t even time to head into the portions of Delaware County so highly concentrated that they make up the single biggest chunk of the Seventh’s voters.

Places like Drexel Hill, where Republicans cling to a voter-registration edge as more Democrats move in from nearby Philadelphia:

 

Camera icon JOSE MORENO / Staff Photographer
Garrett Road and Burmont Avenue, Drexel Hill, Pa. Wednesday, January 24, 2018. Communities across the 7th Congressional District, which is said to be the most gerrymandered in the country. .JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

 

Camera icon JOSE MORENO / Staff Photographer
Store fronts along Garrett Road and Shadeland Avenue, Drexel Hill, Pa. Wednesday, January 24, 2018. Communities across the 7th Congressional District, which is said to be the most gerrymandered in the country. .JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

What we saw, plain and clear, was a gift by — and for — the Republican Party.

With any luck, the court’s order will take hold soon and the Seventh will be redrawn. Meehan can’t leave soon enough, either.

Let’s hope the next version of reality doesn’t require another Gerrymander Journey a decade from now. Or a trip down Soul Mate Lane.