Chester, Berks counties get new House districts
Districts designed to give Berks Republicans, Chester Democrats easy wins
By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Growing populations in Berks and Chester counties will bring its voters greater political clout in Harrisburg for the next 10 years under new state House districts announced Monday.
Each southeastern county will gain a seat in the state House at the expense of two western Pennsylvania districts that were eliminated because of decreasing populations during the past 10 years.
At the same time, Berks County grew by 10 percent and Chester County by 15 percent.
“Significant growth areas include Chester County, Berks County and the Lehigh Valley,” said House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny. “And there will be new seats in those areas, based on the shifts from the west.”
The new district in Chester County will be carved out along the Route 30 corridor and center around Downingtown and Coatesville, giving Democrats an advantage in voter registration numbers, Turzai said.
That comes as good news to state Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester, the only Democrat from the county serving in the General Assembly.
“I’m delighted that it appears that district for all intents and purposes is the Democrats district to lose,” said Dinniman, who served as county commissioner for 14 years. His district also will include Downingtown and Coatesville.
The county will continue to have nine state House districts, because the addition of the new district and subsequent rearranging of others will crowd out state Rep. Thomas Killion, R-Delaware, who represents one township in Chester County and has the majority of his district in Delaware County.
Chester County will be divided among four — not six — state Senate districts after two of them were adjusted to keep them outside the county. Now, in addition to Dinniman, Chester County will include Republican Sens. Dominic Pileggi, Edwin Erickson and John Rafferty.
In Berks County, a new state House district will stretch from the county’s western border with Lebanon County to the northern Reading suburbs of Alsace. The district was drawn to give Republicans an edge in registration, Turzai said.
As in Chester County, the new Berks district will crowd out one of the county’s current representatives. In this case, it is state Rep. Mike Tobash, R-Schuylkill, who held four municipalities in northern Berks County but is now split between Schuylkill and Dauphin counties.
Berks County will be divided among state Sens. Dave Argall, R-Schuylkill; Bob Mensch, R-Montgomery; John Rafferty, R-Montgomery; and Judy Schwank, D-Berks.
Previously, the county had part of a fifth senate district, but State Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, who represented most of western Berks County, will no longer have a portion of his district in the county. Most of the area formerly in Folmer’s district will now be in Argall’s district.
Folmer's district was among the largest changes to the map, as the formerly rural district is now centered on the state capital of Harrisburg.
The state Legislative Reapportionment Commission consists of Turzai, House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny; Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware; Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny; and former state Superior Court Justice Stephen McEwen, who was appointed by the state Supreme Court to be chairman of the commission.
McEwen is a Delaware County Republican.
The redistricting commission has the final say on the state Senate and House maps, with no approval required by the General Assembly or Gov. Tom Corbett. The state Supreme Court can hear challenges to the final maps.
The state legislative redistricting process is distinct from the congressional redistricting process, which also is ongoing in Harrisburg. The General Assembly and the governor must approve the new congressional districts, but no legislation has been introduced.
Statewide, four House districts and one Senate district will move, to reflect shifts in the population during the past decade as shown in the 2010 census.
The Senate, district held by state Sen. Jim Brewster, D-Allegheny, will be cut and moved to Monroe County, which was divided between six senators for the past 10 years. The new district will include all of Monroe County and the northern part of Northampton County.
Of the 28 counties that lost population since 2000, 22 are in the western half of the state. Republicans said they used the population numbers as a guide for the new districts.
“There is no question that one of the Senate districts based in Allegheny County must be moved to address the population shifts,” Pileggi said.
Three new House districts will be created in southeastern Pennsylvania — one each in Berks, Lehigh and Chester counties. All three will be moved from their current locations in western Pennsylvania, where they are held by state Reps. John Evans, R-Erie; Chelsa Wagner, D-Allegheny; and Jesse White, D-Washington.
Evans is retiring, Wagner is running for local office and White will be paired up against state Rep. Nick Kotik, R-Allegheny, in the same district after his district was cut out from under him.
One state House district is moving in the opposite direction, as retiring state Rep. Dennis O’Brien, R-Philadelphia, will have his district moved to southern York County, where the population has grown by 13 percent.
The maps were approved by a vote of 3-2, with McEwen making the tie-breaking vote.
Democrats contended they were not given sufficient time to review the Republican-drawn maps before voting on them, and said the GOP plan is different from what had been negotiated during the past few weeks and during the weekend. The Democratic plan moved one Senate district to Monroe County, but eliminated a GOP district to do so.
“To us, this is not a fair plan, and it is not reasonable for all citizens and our members. The Republican map is not sincere,” Costa said.
Republicans said the maps were legal and constitutional, though leaders were given only about 30 minutes before the vote to review the plans with rank-and-file lawmakers.
Democratic members of the commission offered an alternative plan, which was defeated by a 3-2 vote, with McEwen again casting the tie-breaking vote. Afterward, the judge declined to comment on how long he had been given to review either plan before voting.
The ideal population for each state House district is 62,570 residents, but the new districts vary as much as 3 percent from that number. The ideal size for state Senate districts is 245,620 with the same 3 percent variation allowed, as determined by previous court rulings.
After Monday’s vote, a 30-day public comment period will last until Nov. 30 before the new plans can be adopted officially. There is one public hearing scheduled for noon Nov. 18 at the state Capitol in Harrisburg.
Large scale changes are unlikely following the public comment period, political observers noted.