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Drawing fair congressional districts: Teacher from Delmont speaks out

Stephen Huba
| Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, 7:09 p.m.
Delmont resident William Marx is joined by his daughter, Alexis, during a break in last week's redistricting trial in Harrisburg. With him are fellow plaintiffs (from right) Elizabeth Lawn and Robert Smith. The woman in the middle is unidentified.
Delmont resident William Marx is joined by his daughter, Alexis, during a break in last week's redistricting trial in Harrisburg. With him are fellow plaintiffs (from right) Elizabeth Lawn and Robert Smith. The woman in the middle is unidentified.
Democratic candidate for Delmont council William Marx
Submitted photo
Democratic candidate for Delmont council William Marx

The fact that Pennsylvania's District 12 looks like a barbell has been weighing on William Marx for some time.

The barbell handle is almost broken in two along a small section of the Allegheny River, excluding communities such as New Kensington and Tarentum. The district spans more than 120 miles, from Georgetown borough in Beaver County to Washington Township in Cambria County.

Marx's hometown of Delmont is in the 12th District, along with most of the northern half of Westmoreland County. If socioeconomic diversity were the measure of a well-drawn district, the 12th District probably would win the award.

But Marx thinks one man — in this case, Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley — can't possibly represent all those communities.

“There's really no consistency,” Marx said. “How can someone from Sewickley in Allegheny County really speak for the people out in Somerset, Cambria and northern Westmoreland County?”

Rothfus could not be reached for comment.

Prior to the 2011 redrawing of Pennsylvania's congressional districts, the 12th District had been dominated by Democrats since 1974. Now it's considered a “safe” seat for Republicans, which is why Marx decided to represent Westmoreland County in the gerrymandering lawsuit filed by the Public Interest Law Center in June.

“I feel any partisan drawing of districts to give one side a vast advantage over the other is just wrong. In our democracy, we really need to have competitive districts,” he said.

The trial before Commonwealth Judge P. Kevin Brobson in Harrisburg concluded Friday. Marx testified Monday. The court has until Dec. 31 to issue findings of fact that will be sent to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, said Mimi McKenzie, legal director for the Public Interest Law Center.

The question for the Supreme Court is whether the gerrymandered map violates Pennsylvania voters' constitutional rights because it intentionally advantages one party over another, McKenzie said, noting that the map could be redrawn in time for the 2018 elections.

“This is about people's right to vote — the most fundamental right in our democracy. That's not something that can wait,” she said.

Marx, 41, said he started speaking out on the issue last spring, upon returning from a deployment to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with the 307th Military Police Company out of New Kensington. He became a presenter for Fair Districts PA, which put him on the radar screen of the Public Interest Law Center.

The Philadelphia-based law firm needed 18 petitioners — one from each of the state's 18 congressional districts — to join the League of Women Voters in pursuing the lawsuit against the commonwealth and forcing a redrawing of the districts.

“I guess they really liked me,” Marx said. “When I was approached for this, I immediately wanted to jump on it because I thought this was the best way that we could ever change this.”

Marx testified Monday that his students — he teaches government and civics at Taylor Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill — display apathy when they learn about the practice of gerrymandering.

“I just hate seeing my students get so cynical and downtrodden about our government,” he said. “I think it's criminal that we're basically showing an entire generation of up-and-coming voters that your government doesn't work for you … and you don't have a voice.”

A registered Democrat, Marx said the issue is more a matter of principle than politics. Were the Democrats the ones drawing the district lines, he said he would still be opposed to gerrymandering.

He cited the example of Democratic-controlled legislatures in Maryland and Illinois that have diluted Republican voting power by splitting heavily Republican districts. That's another way of rigging the system, he said.

“I don't care which party is doing it — it's wrong,” he said. “You're taking people's voices away. You're taking their ability to vote for a congressional representative that at least shares some of their views, if not all of their views. And it takes away the ability to hold them accountable.”

Marx's interest in politics also prompted him to run for a seat on Delmont Borough Council in the November election. He takes office in January.

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, or via Twitter @shuba_trib.

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