Divvying up demographics is vital to Council members.
Philadelphia is finally first in something besides surliness and obesity. Our very own 7th District is the most gerrymandered local district in the United States. Local software company Azavea, formerly Avencia, studied the shape and compactness of districts nationwide and not only found the 7th to be the most politically manipulated of them all, but ranked the 5th District in third place.
Gerrymandered districts are easy to spot on a map. Instead of following natural geographic, neighborhood, or existing ward boundaries, the lines twist and wander with no apparent logic. Yet there is a clear, cynical and sinister logic behind gerrymandering: The boundaries are drawn for political gain, to include or exclude voters of a certain party or demographic with the intent of increasing a particular candidate’s or party’s chances in the next election. An incumbent with a secure majority has less incentive to respond to the concerns of citizens who fall outside that majority, leaving groups with no representation at all.
The 5th and 7th districts, the two misshapen electoral districts leading the gerrymandering pack, are the result of nearly a year of political wrangling between Council President Anna C. Verna and then-Mayor John Street over how to redraw the borders following the 2000 census. Every 10 years, after the census, City Council is required to restructure the districts whenever the numbers reveal significant population shifts over the past decade. The census questions provide information on race, ethnicity and population density, giving representatives clues as to where votes are likely to fall—for example, a black councilman and a white councilman might decide to split up a neighborhood by race, figuring constituents of their own skin color to be more reliable voters. The only requirements for redrawing political borders are that each of the 10 districts must contain approximately one-tenth of the city population, and that the new map receives majority approval from Council. Council members can sponsor redistricting maps individually or in alliances, just like normal bills. In effect, they get to pick who will be voting for them in the next election.
Following the 2000 census—and with Street’s support—Council members Darrell Clarke and Rick Mariano stretched, twisted and mangled their district boundaries into shapes resembling inverted jellyfish with tentacles shooting up through North Philly into the Northeast, splitting intuitive neighborhoods and communities apart—the Oxford Circle section of the Northeast, for example, was broken into four different districts. Instead of speaking in a unified voice to one representative, neighbors with shared concerns are forced to go to four different Council members for remedy. The split dramatically decreased any chance of action.
It’s census time again, and the outcome of the 10-question survey, which Philadelphians will be filling out in coming weeks, will inform the next cycle of redistricting in 2011. Census results will likely show the city has lost population overall since 2000, which means each Council district will have to subtract a proportional number of residents. Meanwhile, certain groups such as Latinos and other immigrants continue to grow. Council will once again be forced into tough negotiations and choices to redraw the city’s districts and figure out how to divvy up the new demographics.
Divvying up demographics is vital to Council members. In the 2001 power struggle between Street and Verna, at stake, among other issues, was who would represent Center City and how the growing Latino population in Hunting Park would be redistributed. After six months with no agreement, the City Charter mandated that Council members’ salaries be withheld, but even that wasn’t enough to stop the impasse from dragging on for another five months. When Street finally convinced the Council to support the map drawn by his allies Mariano and Clarke, the nation’s No. 1 and No. 3 most gerrymandered districts were born. The Council came under fire for splitting Hunting Park into three districts, with residents wondering whether that ever-growing community was deliberately divided in order to deny them the ability to elect a representative of their choice.
Councilman Clarke, who has held his seat since 1999, now says he is aware that his district—much of Center City and North Philly, a small chunk of Kensington and Fishtown plus a tiny stripe through Olney into the Northeast—is considered one of the most butchered in the country. “I’m satisfied representing everybody that I currently represent,” he says.
Defending the district map, he adds: “The final version that passed was sponsored by [Mariano and me] but that was not the original version. There may have been 20 different iterations.”
Mariano is out of the picture this time around, his 2006 corruption conviction for honest-services fraud at least partly due to bribes he accepted to pay bills accrued during Council’s payless stint in 2001. His successor, Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, hopes to avoid a similar fate. “I know my Council colleagues don’t want to miss getting paid again,” she laughs.
To spare us the gerrymandering and power struggles this time, watchdog groups have called for more transparency in the process, and Mayor Nutter endorsed the creation of a nonpartisan citizen’s commission during his campaign to oversee the redistricting process. However, no concrete reforms are on the horizon yet. That means as things currently stand, the power to redraw the city’s districts still rests entirely in the hands of the entity with the most to gain from the process: City Council. Still, Quiñones-Sánchez is optimistic that the 2011 process will be cleaner and fairer than it was 10 years ago. “The power fight that existed around representation, that culture is not here,” she says. “We want to get a plan done that’s fair and legal.”
“I think my Council colleagues will be much more open to defining a process early that leads us to a plan that’s not legally challengeable,” she continues, questioning whether Latino voters were illegally split up in 2001.
While concerns about Latino disenfranchisement have been somewhat assuaged thanks to Quiñones-Sánchez’s 2007 election, the issue of unethically drawn districts remains. “The argument that we need a Latino district is not one to take this time around,” says the Councilwoman. “Now we have an opportunity to take the discussion away from Latino empowerment and make sure no group or no neighborhood gets disempowered.”
As for next year, it’s a matter of wait and see. “It isn’t clear if my district has increased or decreased,” says Clarke. “We may need to alter some of the lines but we don’t know at this point ... It’s a process we must go through every 10 years. I hope and expect it won’t be as controversial as the last one.”
While Council members believe they can do a better job this time, the rest of the city is skeptical. The citizen’s commission promised by the mayor would be a good check on Council’s power, if it ever comes to fruition. “We want to work on this in the summer or fall. A lot will be determined by the census. Our focus right now is to make sure everyone is counted,” the Mayor’s Office says. “We’re still committed to a commission but it will be worked out with Council. It isn’t a unilateral thing.”
The proposal for the citizen’s commission was part of the ethics agenda set forward by the Committee of Seventy during the mayoral campaign. “We’d love to see the mayor keep his promise to hold the commission,” says Jon David, head of voter services for the committee. But even the Committee of Seventy is short on specifics as to how exactly the commission should function. “We don’t have a position on specifically how,” says David. “The best way is a transparent way …that it’s done in the pubic view and the public has a chance to weigh in on the process. We want to start building awareness and teach people how it works.”
Census results don’t come in until April 2011, so there’s still time to figure out a fair, nonpartisan, nondisenfranchising redistricting process and correct the civic embarrassment of having two of the three most gerrymandered districts in the country. Then maybe Philadelphia can go back to just being No. 1 in surliness and leave gerrymandering to other serial offenders—like Pennsylvania, the second most gerrymandered state in the country.
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