Who will survive?

Columnist : Albert Paschall

 Harrisburg’s isolation will become more apparent in the next few months.  After the budget is passed the capital may as well be a deserted island burdened with 10 survivors and two of them have got to go before next year.  Who decides who goes and who stays is the drama to stay tuned to in the weeks ahead.

The US Census figures are in.  The census dictates re-districting, the highly political process of assuring that every member of Congress represents about 565,000 people.  The numbers show that Pennsylvania is doomed to lose two seats in Congress.  While the census that’s more concerned with how many bathrooms you have in your house may hold all the confidence of dimpled chads counted in a Florida backwater it will be abided.

The process of re-districting every ten years is fairly civil for state offices.  State House and Senate party leaders draw the lines for Pennsylvania’s districts and a 5 person commission, 2 Democrats and 2 Republicans with a non-partisan arbiter put the final plan before the State Supreme Court.  Most of the wrangling is about geography trying to put more Republicans into Republican districts and more Democrats into Democratic districts.  It’s a process of trades and swaps but the incumbents-in-place long ago learned to live with each other and know that no matter what happens the big hitters are going to assure their own survival.  For Republican House Majority Leader John Perzel it’s a New Year’s resolution to get his Philadelphia district re-drawn after an unknown challenger nearly took out the 22 year incumbent by less than 100 votes.

When the state seats are decided the majority party then starts moving Congressional lines.  With Republican Tom Ridge controlling Republican majorities in the Senate and House the game should be cut and dry.  The cut part is easy: two of Pennsylvania’s Democrats in Congress will be gone next year, but it won’t be dry.  Ultimately it will be a bloody contest to see who survives and contrary to popular wisdom it won’t be Republican guts that make the cuts, Democrats will ultimately have to decide who gets tossed from their own ranks.

The choices aren’t easy.  With Republican Congresswoman Melissa Hart’s victory in the 4th congressional district along the Ohio border the state now has 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats in Congress.  Which two Democrats are doomed to political oblivion is the drama about to unfold.

By the numbers Philadelphia and Pittsburgh should each lose one seat.  Pittsburgh’s cut into 4 Congressional districts and Philadelphia has 3.  Congressmen Borksy, Brady and Fatah hold Philadelphia.  Brady is the Philadelphia Democratic Chairman and Fatah is the state’s only African-American congressman so Borsky should be the castaway but with Democratic powerhouse Senator Vince Fuomo unwilling to compromise the city’s presence in Congress that’s not likely to happen.  In the west the Democrats will have to cast away either Doyle, Murtha, Mascara or Coyne.  Murtha and Coyne with their seniority and powerful committee positions aren’t going anywhere unless one of them volunteers to sail into the sunset.   The 71-year-old Frank Mascara might be a candidate for the lifeboat but blending his district runs a slight risk of a Republican victory there in 2002 and the last thing Democratic lead! ership needs is to lose another seat.

To keep the status quo the Democrats will have to consider throwing their young to the re-districting sharks.  Mike Doyle, already gerrymandered into a half moon district around Pittsburgh is almost surely first blood.  In 1998 Montgomery County’s 13th congressional seat was taken by surprise by the Democrats in the overwhelmingly Republican and richest county in the state.  This seat seems to be on the verge of being chopped up into 3 or 4 congressional districts, eliminating any Democratic strength in the county.  Undoubtedly the Democrats would gag before sacrificing second term Congressman and rising star Joe Hoeffel in the 13th. Montgomery County’s overwhelmingly Republican state house delegation might be set adrift back home in the 2002 elections if someday they vote to have the only county in the state with an almost exclusive seat surrendered to political machinations.

What’s next?  Stay tuned.  This process starts soon.  For political junkies every new episode will be fascinating.  For Republicans it will be a question of grace in political victory.  For the Democrats it will be a question of who will survive?