Bustleton, land of the strip mall, is a dreary, sterile place. The greatest excitement lies in the death-defying task of crossing the 12 lanes of Roosevelt Boulevard. If you survive, heading west, you’ve entered the northeast corner of the 7th City Council District.
The district corkscrews down the city like a curly pig’s tail, from the middle-class neighborhoods in the far hinterlands through the burgeoning immigrant communities in the lower Northeast. In two places, it narrows to such a point that it appears you need to walk down the middle of the road to actually stay within the lines. Eventually, the district widens in Juniata Park and bulges out to a more contiguous blob.
The distorted shape is no illusion: According to local software company Azavea, which studies redistricting around the country, the 7th is the most gerrymandered local district in the nation. The deed was done when the lines were last redrawn in 2001, so that the 7th, which contained an ever-increasing Latino population, would retain enough white people to ensure Rick Mariano’s re-election in 2004. It worked, though he ended up in jail in 2006 on corruption charges.
The victims: Latino communities, whose voting power has been sliced and diced every which way (read: disenfranchisement). Now, with another round of redistricting on the summer agenda, a group called Latino Lines, headed by former Councilman-At-Large Angel Ortiz, is working to ensure that this time, Latinos protect their right to be heard.
“You have to have political representation in order to get your agenda on the table,” says Ortiz, who has been trying to create a “Latino district” ever since he came to Philadelphia in the mid-1970s. He’s been frustrated, failing in two attempts in 1991 and 2001 to persuade the rest of Council to consolidate Latino political power. This time, though no longer a member of the legislative body, he thinks the time is ripe. “We’re [12.3] percent of the population almost all in one area,” Ortiz says. “If we make the case to our people, and our people understand that we’re getting screwed, then it’s easier to motivate politically and drive the process.”
“It’s always been to us a very black or white city,” says Nilda Ruiz, nibbling at a traditional Puerto Rican farm meal of cod and veggies at a Norris Square restaurant, near the bottom of the 7th. “We always feel like a little ham in the middle.”
Ruiz is president of the Association de Puerto Ricanos en Marcha, which provides a variety of social services and is part of the Latino Lines coalition. She makes the case for specific “Latino issues” that deserve political recognition: “Unemployment,” she says. “We have the highest dropout rate, because someone might speak with an accent or broken English. Maybe we need a difference curriculum at our schools because our children don’t have the same advantages.”
Ortiz and others assert that the 2001 redistricting actually violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act by deliberately disenfranchising Latino voters and denying them the opportunity to elect a representative of their choice—but nobody had the resources to challenge it in court.
Creating districts to specifically empower “communities of interest” is a valid interpretation of the law, says Barry Kauffman, executive director of advocacy group Common Cause Pennsylvania, which has been working to reform the state redistricting process for three decades. “There are protections under the voting rights act,” he says.
To push their agenda, Latino Lines has drawn its own idealized maps of how the districts should be broken up. The 7th would lose its curly pig tail and expand east and north, raising the Latino population from 50 to 58 percent. But if the group is to get its wish, it needs to have City Council on board. Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who was elected councilwoman to the 7th in 2007 and subsequently cruised through her primary this spring, makes the case that Latinos already elect a candidate of their choice: her. “The argument that we couldn’t elect a Latino went out in 2007,” she says in her City Hall office, where at least as much Spanish as English is spoken by visitors and staff. “It’s a political reality that the Latino voice is here.”
The real salient issue, she argues, is keeping communities intact—of ethnicity, economic status and other common issues—so they are easier to represent and in turn have an easier time receiving grants and services. The quality-of-life complaints that come into her office from Bustleton are far different from the struggles with crime, drugs and poverty in the Latino areas further south. Worse, a neighborhood like Oxford Circle, one of the choke points in the lower Northeast, spreads over four different districts, requiring an unfathomable amount of cooperation between Council members to get anything done.
Quiñones-Sánchez acknowledges that Ortiz’s proposal would surely help her future election chances by putting more Latinos in her area, but says the group should be careful about stepping on other legislators’ toes. “I would caution them about drawing other people’s districts,” she says. “You’re putting people’s backs against the wall.”
It’s not just a city problem. Latino Lines has its eyes set on the state house seats, too, where currently only one district, Angel Cruz’s 180th, could be considered primarily Latino. The group would actually reduce the number of Latinos in Cruz’s district from 70 to 60 percent, while maintaining a majority. “The process is long overdue,” Cruz says. “These lines we have created go back and correct what was done 10 years ago ... so we’ll have two Latino districts.”
The group would transform the 179th from a heavily gerrymandered, 38 percent Latino area to a compact 62 percent, which would dramatically change the constituency of current State Rep. Tony Payton. “I don’t know what to expect because I’ve never been through this before,” says the legislator, who is black and who has held his seat since 2007. “I don’t expect what I say or think really matters in this process.”
At its heart, the redistricting debate runs deeper than just ensuring representation for different minority groups—it’s a symptom of a broken, corrupt political process. When legislators get to redraw their own districts, nobody even tries to pretend there is any goal other than to protect incumbents (or in some cases, punish dissident legislators). “This is the most political process,” Quiñones-Sánchez agrees. “It shouldn’t be, but it is.” A few states have taken the task away from politicians entirely, putting redistricting in the hands of truly independent commissions. Thirty years of efforts by Common Cause and other groups to do something similar in Pennsylvania have all failed so far, and the power still lies in the hands of the top four legislative leaders.
The state is considering a more open process this time, with public hearings before and after the new maps are drawn to collect input. “Our goal is to adopt a redistricting plan that is fair and legal,” says Erik Arneson, communications and policy director for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi. “Minority representation, along with other traditional redistricting principles such as contiguity and compactness, will certainly be among the factors considered in developing such a plan.” But to take the ultimate power away from the House and Senate leaders would require a change in the state constitution, which isn’t happening anytime soon.
Locally, Council is considering public hearings as well to open up the process somewhat, but Mayor Nutter’s campaign promise of a citizen’s commission to draw the lines has come to naught. “There’s no political appetite for that,” Quiñones-Sánchez says.
“The mayor is no longer talking about a citizen’s commission as such, as he did when running for office,” says Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald. “He’s more focused on encouraging City Council to have open hearings—multiple hearings—hearings that encourage input from the public.”
In the meantime, Latino Lines will likely be able to push through a good part of their agenda. But true reform requires state and city legislators to willingly cede the power to create their own districts. Don’t hold your breath.