Congressional district maps the focus of UPJ forum

February 7, 2018

More than 55 residents from Cambria and Somerset counties were in Richland Township Tuesday to discuss redistricting and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown hosted a public forum on congressional redistricting at the John P. Murtha Center for Public Service and National Competitiveness. Panelists talked to students and residents about redistricting reform.

Bill Marx, a speaker and one of 18 Pennsylvania residents who sued the state in June over its congressional redistricting practices, said all he’s looking for is for the system to be fair.

“If I could wave a wand, every district should be a 50/50 split so it would always be competitive,” he said. “But I know you can’t do that.”

On Jan. 22 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said the state’s 18 congressional districts had been unconstitutionally gerrymandered, or manipulated to favor one political party over the other.

The court ordered the General Assembly to redraw the map by Friday, or the court will draw it for them.

Republican legislators have tried to get a stay on the order, saying that the timeline to complete the new maps is unrealistic and the court order contradicts parts of the state constitution. Both the state and U.S. supreme courts have denied the legislators’ request for a stay.

Marx, a social studies teacher and an Army reservist from Delmont, used to be in the 4th Congressional District, where he could easily reach his local representative. Now part of the 12th District, Marx said he’s written to U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus, a Republican from Sewickley, and has never received a response.

“I’ve written to him as a service member and I’ve never heard back from him on anything,” he said.

Marx said representatives like Rothfus don’t have to meet with their constituents because they know they can get the votes to be re-elected back into office.

“If a congressman won’t meet with his constituents, how does he know my needs?” he said.

State Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Johnstown, also on the panel, said it is a 50/50 chance on whether a new map can be made before the Friday deadline.

“Both parties have individual interests in how districts are shaped,” he told residents who attended the forum.

UPJ officials said Republican representatives were offered the opportunity to speak at the event, but they declined, saying they had other commitments.

David Popp, a speaker with Fair Districts PA, showed those present several examples of supposed gerrymandering in Pennsylvania, including Montgomery County. The county is split into five separate districts.

“People are not getting a fair shake in this instance,” he said.

Edward Locher, a student from Windber, said he only recently followed the state Supreme Court case after joining his professor’s political geography course. Locher said he appreciated hearing from representatives about gerrymandering and redistricting reform.

“I think it’s important to understand what’s going on in our state, especially when it comes to the drawing of the maps because you need to know who your representatives are,” he said. “People are just far too apathetic as far as politics goes.”

Marx said he was pleased with the turnout, but added that more discussion and attention needs to be paid to political issues. Marx said a lack of discussions about gerrymandering is what politicians who draw the maps want.

“Avoiding talking about gerrymandering makes minds weak,” he said. “Politicians want people with weak minds.”