Political Gamesmanship or Gains
Every ten years, the U.S. government takes a head count. Then all fifty states take that Census information and use it to reconfigure their political districts, drawing new lines to reflect the needs of a changing population. But the process can be painful, and problematic.
For example, Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton make up the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania's third most-populated area. And for forty years, the Valley has been wholly represented in Washington by Republican Charlie Dent of the 15th Congressional District. Not any more. On December 20th, three Republican and two Democratic party leaders drew new lines for those districts, splitting the Valley and creating a minor firestorm.
Sal Panto, Jr., Mayor of the City of Easton, Pennsylvania, is one of those unhappy with the process. "Obviously this redistricting was done solely on a political basis."
Democrat Tim Holden of the 17th Congressional District will now represent Easton. Panto says both parties are at fault. "It benefits the incumbents, both on the Republican and on the Democractic side. Obviously it benefits Republicans more than Democrats, but certainly you take my district here in the 15th Congressional District -- taking off a Democratic stronghold like Easton, as a city -- helps the incumbent, Charlie Dent, as a Congressman."
Out of the three cities comprising the Lehigh Valley, it may be Easton that's the hardest hit financially by the reapportionment. For example, out of a recent 4-million-dollar grant, Easton's share was only 800-thousand dollars, the smallest amount. Now that it's part of the 17th Congressional District, who knows what its share may end up being.
Many question how the Lehigh Valley will fare as a whole. It took the three cities years to create their identity as "the Valley," with institutions from the Lehigh Valley International Airport to The Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce and hundreds of others adopting the regional name.
Says Pa. Rep. Robert Freeman (D), of the 136th District, "Having one congressman to champion our interests and needs is a very effective way to ensure that the Lehigh Valley's priorities are presented in Washington and fought for in Washington."
Fellow Democrat Rep. Steve Samuelson of the 135th District concurs. "A region benefits when you have a unified voice in Washington."
But Republican State Senator Pat Browne (16th Cong. Dist.) says that's a backward-looking idea, that the future of politics is in regional growth, and that having two voices representing the Lehigh Valley can only strengthen its position. "Even though their districts in terms of the actual lines may look like there's a split amongst communities, but in the end what they have there -- is they have multiple congressional voices in that region that could speak for them."
Indeed, he says all representatives on all levels of government have consistently worked together to promote the area as a whole. Still, Samuelson says he's going to revive and effort he made three years ago to change the way reapportionment is handled in Pennsylvania, handing it over to a non-partisan committee instead of having it decided by people with obvious political interests. "In this case, the state senate actually passed this plan with 14 hours of public notice. They put it out on a Wednesday morning at 9 am, they voted Wednesday night at 11pm."
Not only should the public have at least 30 days to consider the plan, Samuelson says, but the way this one was handled may create grounds for an appeal. If none is filed, though, in January the new lines will become fixed for the next ten years.
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