3 W.Pa. Dems may lose seats in redistricting

| Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2011

HARRISBURG -- A Republican plan to redraw legislative districts would eliminate one Senate and two House districts in the Pittsburgh region, all of them represented by Democrats.

Under the plan, which a reapportionment commission approved on Monday, two Democratic House incumbents in Allegheny and Washington counties would have their districts merged, a Pittsburgh House district would move to Allentown, and the state Senate district held by a former McKeesport mayor would move to the Poconos.

Rep. Nick Kotik of Coraopolis said the Republican plan to merge his 45th House district in Allegheny County with that of another Democratic incumbent in Washington County came as a "big surprise."

Kotik and Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, in the 46th, would face each other in a Democratic primary if the plan is adopted and they both run for re-election next year.

"At the end of the day, my job is to represent the 46th district," said White. "It's always been my plan to run for re-election." Kotik said he intends to run but reserves the right to study the district lines.

Kotik called it a cynical effort by Republicans who control the state House and Senate to widen their majorities. "I guess it's all part of the master plan to increase the (Republican) majority in the House," he said. "It's not about fairness. It's about politics, pure and simple."

"We had public hearings. We had negotiations," said House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods. "In the end, we have to work together for the needs of the entire state and make it work."

Residents of both White and Kotik's districts said they had questions about the potential merger, chief among them whether there will be a district office nearby, what it will mean for representation at the state level and if any services will change.

"I'm sure it has some impact on me, I just don't know what," said William Byer, 55, of Carnegie.

A special commission of four legislative leaders and a retired judge gave preliminary approval to the plan yesterday. A public hearing is set for Nov. 18. A final plan must be approved by Nov. 30.

It's part of the once-a-decade effort to redraw political maps based on census changes. Population losses in Western Pennsylvania prompted the move of districts to the Eastern part of the state where there has been growth.

Republicans leaders drew up the plan. Retired Superior Court Judge Stephen McEwen, a Republican who chairs the panel, voted with them.

Panel members approved the plan by a 3-2 vote, with Democrats on the panel complaining it was driven by politics. Republicans countered it was fair and constitutional.

The adoption of the plan was "raw politics," said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, who serves on the commission.

But "27 of 28 Southwestern Pennsylvania Democratic seats lost population and you can't avoid it," said Turzai.

Among other changes, the plan would:

-- Move the 45th district Senate seat held by Sen. Jim Brewster, D-McKeesport, to Monroe County. McKeesport would be in the Washington County district of Sen. Tim Solobay, a Democrat. Brewster could not be reached.

-- Move the 22nd House seat of Rep. Chelsa Wagner of Beechview, the Democratic candidate for Allegheny County Controller in next Tuesday's general election, to Allentown. "She (Wagner) obviously advocated strongly against it," said her legislative aide Lou Takacs. "The final outcome remains to be seen."

-- Move the 5th House seat of Rep. John Evans, R-Erie, to Berks County. Evans is not planning on seeking re-election, said Turzai.

-- The 169th House district which former House Speaker Dennis O'Brien, R-Philadelphia, holds would move to York County. O'Brien served as speaker in 2008-09 with support of Democrats. O'Brien is running for Philadelphia city council.

Debbie Teoli, a lifelong McKeesport resident, was disheartened by the thought that the state Senate seat held by Brewster -- the former mayor of McKeesport -- could be eliminated.

"This town has lost so much," Teoli, 56, said as she waited for a bus. "I think he's really tried to do the best he can for the district and it will hurt our future if we lose him. I don't think we'll get the same kind of representation from somebody in a different area."

Bill Troy, 60, of Monroeville, said while he is generally against carving up the 45th District because he prefers to have someone "from right here" representing the community in the state Senate, he questions just how much lawmakers really care about the needs of their constituents.

"Several years ago when I tried to talk to (former state senator) Sean Logan about my concerns about people text messaging while driving, he really didn't want to hear about it," said Troy, who lost a family member in an accident in which the driver was texting. "Listening to what people have to say really doesn't seem to matter much to any of them."

The plan comes from a commission that has been meeting since February to examine population shifts as of the 2010 census. Of Western Pennsylvania counties, only Butler and Forest counties had significant gains. Twenty-three western counties lost population.

House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, a commission member, called the Republican plan "classic bait and switch." What was presented yesterday was vastly different from what Democrats had seen last week, he said.

Republicans say the plan erred in merging two more Allegheny County districts than intended, which would have forced Rep. Adam Ravenstahl, D-North Side, to face Rep. Dom Costa, D-Stanton Heights, and Rep. Daniel Deasy, D-Westwood, to battle Rep. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon.

Dermody had said the plan left Deasy and Ravenstahl living outside their state House districts.

Turzai says it was unintentional but based on information provided by Democrats. It's being fixed, Turzai said.

Staff writers Adam Brandolph and Tony LaRussa contributed to this report.

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