February 18, 2010 | The Philadephia Inquirer | Original Article

Murtha House seat likely to disappear

Murtha House seat likely to disappear

The candidate who succeeds the late Rep. John P. Murtha (D., Pa.) in a special election this spring might not want to buy a home in Washington.

That's because demographers estimate that Pennsylvania will lose at least one seat in the decennial reapportionment of House seats among the states after the 2010 Census - and some political analysts believe the 12th District would be an easy target for state lawmakers reshuffling boundaries before the 2012 elections.

Murtha's district, which looks somewhat like a crustacean spread over parts of nine counties, was itself gerrymandered into existence to save his job a decade ago, after the Census determined that Pennsylvania would lose two representatives because of sluggish population growth relative to other states.

Even Republicans - who then controlled the state House, Senate, and governor's office - did not want to lose Murtha or the billions of dollars he steered to Pennsylvania as chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee in charge of defense spending.

Murtha, who died at 77 of complications from gallbladder surgery, was buried Tuesday in Johnstown.

"The district will have two things going against it: One, it's going to have the most junior member in the state delegation, and two, it's easy to cut up," said Philadelphia political consultant Larry Ceisler, who was an expert witness in the lawsuit that Democrats filed in 2002 to challenge the fairness of the overall redistricting plan.

A state's congressional representation helps determine its national clout, so redistricting can inspire epic fights.

Advised by then-Sen. Rick Santorum (R., Pa.), GOP lawmakers in 2002 drew a map that eliminated four Democrats by merging their districts with others, while creating two Republican-leaning districts in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh suburbs.

Federal courts ultimately upheld the plan, ruling, in effect, that there was no constitutional prohibition against partisanship in redistricting, as long as minority voting rights were protected.

As in most states, district lines are set by the legislature in a bill that the governor can sign or veto. Democrats control the state House, 104-99, and the state Senate is overwhelmingly Republican. Gov. Rendell, a Democrat, is leaving office after two terms.

Work will get under way next year, after the Census is tabulated, and it could stretch into 2012, especially if court challenges are involved.

In New Jersey, also projected to lose a House seat, a bipartisan commission appointed by Democratic and Republican leaders draws congressional districts.

Already in Pennsylvania, insiders of both parties are girding for battle, and redistricting is a strong subplot in races to take the majority in the state House and win the governor's office this fall.

"Republicans are confident given this environment that they can take the House," said pollster Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College. "I don't think there's any doubt that the seat has a high potential of being eliminated."

Rendell yesterday set a special election to fill the remainder of Murtha's term for the regular primary day of May 18. Voters in the 12th District will also select a full-term representative this year.

"It's decent conjecture that the new guy will be the first to go, but I don't think anybody can tell you at this point," said Democratic former Rep. Bob Borski, who retired when his Northeast Philadelphia district was merged with another in 2002.

"It all depends on who controls the legislature and who the governor is, and who wins the [Murtha] seat," Borski said. "There are a lot of things to factor in."

Despite the uncertainty, several potential candidates are running for Murtha's seat, or at least considering it. Former state Treasurer Barbara Hafer, a Democrat, announced Monday that she wants to run, unless Murtha's widow, Joyce, decides to do so.

"If we do lose a seat, population changes in the state are the primary factor in deciding which seat is removed," said Erik Arneson, spokesman for state Senate Republicans.

"That said, the more senior members of Congress tend to have more people advocating for their seats to remain," Arneson added. "And the Census data show the western half of the state is losing population. So the passing of Rep. Murtha may turn out to be a significant factor in the next round of redistricting."

After the 2000 Census, GOP mapmakers removed the most Democratic precincts from a new 18th District outside Pittsburgh, which was drawn for Rep. Tim Murphy (R., Pa.), then a state senator looking to move up. Those Democratic areas were pieced together and appended to Murtha's Cambria County base.

Republicans also created the Sixth District with chunks of Chester, Montgomery, and Berks Counties in 2002. Rep. Jim Gerlach (R., Pa.), also a state senator at the time, is running for a sixth term this year.

Pennsylvania is expected to lose a seat, dropping from 19 House members to 18, because 2009 Census estimates showed that its population grew more slowly than other states'.

Rendell has vowed to push participation in the Census to try to keep the state from losing clout.

Ohio is expected to lose two seats, with New Jersey, New York, Michigan, Massachusetts, Iowa, Illinois, and Louisiana considered possibilities to lose one seat.

New Jersey would drop from 13 House members to 12 if the estimates prove accurate. Ten years ago, the state stayed even, but in 1992 it went from 14 districts to 13. Two Democratic-held districts were merged into one, and one of the representatives retired.

Texas could gain as many as three seats, and Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah, and Washington would gain one new seat each if projections hold. Although many of those states lost population in last year's estimates or stayed level because of the recession, gains from earlier in the decade will boost them in reapportionment.