2012-02-23 / Local & State

Legislative Campaigns Plying Uncharted Waters

By Mark Scolforo

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – The redistricting bombshell that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court dropped last month in throwing out legislative district maps developed from the 2010 census could shape state politics for a generation.

The five-member Legislative Reapportionment Commission meets in Harrisburg on Wednesday, its first public get-together since a 4-3 court majority rewrote the rules for drawing the boundaries for 50 Senate and 203 House seats.

There could be a vote on a preliminary replacement plan.

“It doesn't mean we're going to,” executive director Charles E. O'Connor Jr. said Thursday. “It depends how the negotiations go. It depends if we're anywhere near that stage or not. It doesn't mean if we vote on a possible plan that we pass a plan.”

Republican leaders, with majorities in both chambers, have spoken of a desire to enact new maps quickly, perhaps in time for the April 24 primary, which would be an impressive accomplishment given the powerful and conflicting interests in play.

The commission consists of the House and Senate floor leaders and chairman Stephen J. McEwen Jr., a Republican former Delaware County district attorney and president judge emeritus of the state Superior Court. He was appointed by the Supreme Court after the parties couldn’t agree on the fifth member.

McEwen isn't talking to reporters, and the other commissioners are either declining comment or saying little.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, expressed optimism that a plan will be approved Wednesday but would not say how his latest proposal differs from the one the high court rejected.

“We’re in the middle of negotiations, and it’s confidential,” he said.

The plan they produced in December passed 4-1, with the three Republicans joined by House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, R-Allegheny, who supported the deal after getting concessions on districts in the northeast and the Pittsburgh area.

Dermody spokesman Bill Patton said the new talks are now at “essentially a restart.”

“Many assumptions have changed since this process took place last fall,” Patton said. “In a real sense, we are back at the beginning.”

That means undertaking fresh discussions about which districts to move, whether to put incumbents into districts together and how to take into account several retirements that were announced after the last plan was approved.

The court said the commission improperly split municipalities and that districts should be more compact. Its Jan. 24 decision was issued just as candidates for the Legislature had begun to circulate nominating petitions.

The high court’s order said the ‘01 maps would remain in place until the commission comes up with a new plan that passes legal muster. Republicans appear eager to get a new plan in place for the April primary, but Turzai would not directly respond when asked what the “drop dead” date for that would be.

And if they do approve new maps, it's far from clear what that would mean to the hundreds of candidates now weeks into the current campaign.

Delaying or bifurcating the primary has been under consideration. But as the online news service Capitolwire pointed out last week, such a decision could be a hard sell to dozens of incumbents who – as of Thursday – made the ballot without opposition. A delay might give potential challengers more time to jump into the race, would entail additional costs and could spawn a backlash from voters.

It's entirely possible that at some point the leaders will find themselves back before the Supreme Court, defending their new maps against accusations that they have not met the majority’s new standards. Whatever emerges from the commission will undoubtedly be scrutinized by the same groups that successfully challenged the previous plan last month.

Virginia Gibson, a lawyer for Amanda Holt, who helped get the maps thrown out by arguing there was a better alternative, said Holt has been sharing details of her approach with “several” of the commission members in recent weeks. Gibson did not say what might prompt another appeal, but noted that her clients are looking for a new version that would be as close to theirs as feasible.

Commission members have to find their way out of uncharted waters, knowing that their work will be closely scrutinized by voters, candidates, rank-and-file lawmakers and seven Supreme Court justices. And they will have to live with the results for 10 long years.

No pressure.

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