MARBLEHEAD, Mass. — A brisk walk down Old Burial Hill, where many young Revolutionary War soldiers rest, and a right onto Orne Street lead to the most oddly shaped house imaginable.
"Oh, that’s the ‘Spite House,’" explains Marblehead Historical Commission volunteer Wayne Butler. "Apparently, three brothers who lived there back in the 1700s had a rather large argument and began partitioning off sections of the house in order to not have to see each other."
The brothers went to their graves without speaking again.
On Washington Street is the well-preserved home of Elbridge Gerry, a Founding Father, Massachusetts governor, congressman and vice president.
Yet Gerry (that’s "Gary" with a hard "G," locals insist) is best known as the namesake of gerrymandering — redrawing congressional districts to benefit the party in power.
Contemporary accounts describe Gerry as cantankerous. He stubbornly ran unsuccessfully four times as the Democratic-Republican nominee for governor between 1800 and 1804, finally won in 1810, then lost in 1812.
"He was a bit of a vociferous individual," Butler recounts. "An original signer of the Declaration of Independence, he was one of three men who refused to sign the Constitution because it did not then include a Bill of Rights."
Gerry’s name entered the political lexicon thanks to maneuvering during his two one-year terms as governor. The lines of Massachusetts legislative districts he redrew to favor his party looked like a salamander — hence, "gerrymander."
As pundits haggle over how many seats may or may not give Republicans U.S. House or Senate control, gubernatorial races’ national impact goes largely unnoticed.
Governors are states’ CEOs; 37 will be chosen next month. Which party controls those state offices will affect the entire country because governors can craft state and congressional district lines — and control of the House for the next decade.
In almost every state, legislators draw the lines — but governors approve or veto the maps.
"This is the rawest form of political power in the United States," says Jeff Brauer, Keystone College history professor.
Democrats hold 26 governor’s offices; Republicans, 24. If the GOP wins the eight that most pollsters project it will, Republicans will hold 32 gubernatorial seats to Democrats’ 18 — a big change in a key year.
Moreover, Brauer explains, population is shifting from the heavily Democrat Northeast to the more Republican Southwest. "That means reapportionment will shift congressional seats and power from blue states to red states, giving Republicans an additional advantage in future elections."
It also means Republicans can create new districts that result in still more Republican victories, while Democrats must simply try to hold on.
Some caveats: First, some states are turning to technology, commissions or courts to help with redistricting, which lessens gerrymandering’s impact.
Second, incumbents do gerrymandering, so it naturally is biased toward incumbency. Brauer says incumbents will protect themselves and each other, sometimes even above party interests. "Plus, with the rise of the independent voter, the gerrymandering strategies of packing, splintering/cracking and pairing are much more difficult to do for party advantage."
With more voters identifying themselves as independent, not Republican or Democrat, successful gerrymandering becomes harder.
Gerrymandering is much like the Spite House — a haphazard attempt to gain control.
Wayne Butler’s younger brother Chris is Marblehead’s building inspector. They disagree passionately about politics but have no plans to divide up a home.
"He is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican," Chris says. "I am a die-hard Democrat."
Yet he struggles to explain how Democrats have helped the working class — the reason he is a Democrat — and grudgingly admits the federal stimulus did not stimulate jobs.
"I was a carpenter; I always thought the Democrats were for the working man," says Chris, who stubbornly voted against Republican Scott Brown in January’s U.S. Senate race. "I guess I’m a Yellow Dog Democrat" — the kind who votes for Dems even when they don’t deserve it.
Wayne sighs, leaving the impression he considers his brother’s dogged inability to see beyond partisan politics is not unlike Gerry’s famed stubbornness.
Tribune-Review Political Reporter