(*This story was updated at 6 p.m. on Monday, 5/3/21 with comment from Mark Nordenberg, legislative leaders, Committee of Seventy President David Thornburgh, and additional information on Nordenberg’s background.)
A former University of Pittsburgh chancellor has been tapped as head of the Pennsylvania commission that draws legislative maps.
Mark Nordenberg, a 72-year-old resident of Allegheny County, will chair the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, the five-member group that will redraw all 253 Pennsylvania General Assembly districts this year.
“I have worked over the years with senators and representatives, sometimes on difficult issues, and am almost always able to come some kind of constructive conclusion,” Nordenberg told the Capital-Star “So, I don’t take the challenges lightly, but I think the opportunity to make a real contribution is present.”
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court announced Nordenberg, who was dean of Pitt’s law school before heading the university, in a one-page order Monday. The choice of chair fell to the high court Friday when legislative leaders announced they could not agree on a fifth member.
“He’s very well respected, he’s active, he’s shown himself to be nonpartisan in every respect,” David Thornburgh, president of the good government group Committee of Seventy, said of Nordenberg. “I’m only surprised this came so quickly after the four members decided they couldn’t pull the trigger.”
As chair, Nordenberg will have the final say in disputes between Republicans and Democrats over district lines. Those lines will decide the balance of power in the House and Senate for the next decade.
Also on the commission is House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny.
The high court has now picked the chair in five of six redistricting cycles since the state’s current constitution laid out the mapping process.
In fact, Nordenberg was a finalist for chair of the commission in 1991. However, the commission ended up deadlocking over his nomination, and the pick fell to the Supreme Court. He was also discussed as an option to head the commission in 2011
On Friday, when legislative leaders handed the choice of chair to the court, the leaders asked for a pick who has “some distance from the political process,” including no recent history of running for office, working for politicians, or lobbying.
According to campaign finance records, Nordenberg, who was Pitt’s Chancellor from 1995 to 2014, has not donated to any state political campaigns in recent years.
His only federal donations, according to Federal Election Commission records, are a $2,000 donation to President Joe Biden’s political campaign in October 2020, and a $250 donation to former GOP Gov. Dick Thornburgh’s 1992 Senate run.
Nordenberg, who in retirement chairs Pitt’s Institute of Politics, also served on former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s education transition team in 2010.
But just weeks after Corbett’s inauguration, Nordenberg released a statement “respectfully, but clearly and forcefully” questioning his inaugural budget, which made deep cuts to the state’s education system.
Of his political history, Nordenberg said that he is a political moderate, who has admired, and voted for, people in both parties.
“I don’t go into this process with any kind of strong party affiliations or any kind of partisan biases, and I think that’s pretty well known by the people in Harrisburg which whom I have worked,” he added.
In a statement, Costa, the Senate Democratic leader, said Nordenberg’s background met their qualifications, arguing the former chancellor “earned a reputation for transparency and accountability.”
“It was critical that we selected someone who has distanced themselves from politics but still has strong knowledge of this state and its governance, and Chancellor Nordenberg is uniquely qualified in that way,” Costa said in a statement.
Senate Republican leader Ward noted Nordenberg’s “extensive experience working through complex issues.”
“The citizens of Pennsylvania are counting on him to navigate the challenging process in his role as chairman of the commission,” she added.
Nordenberg will not have a role in the drawing of Pennsylvania’s congressional maps, which are drawn by the Legislature itself, passed as a bill, and must be signed by Gov. Tom Wolf.
The legislative maps, however, will be adopted by the vote of the five members of the redistricting commission alone.
The pick of a former law professor — Nordenberg started in that role at Pitt in 1977 — brings the commission back to its roots. After the redistricting commission was laid out in the states 1968 constitution, the first chair was a University of Pennsylvania law professor, according to a 2019 paper published by, among others, former House Speaker Mike Turzai, also of Allegheny County.
In 2001 and 2011, the high court picked former judges, who are partisan elected officials in Pennsylvania.
The 2011 maps adopted by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission were tossed by the state Supreme Court for breaking up too many municipalities, which ordered the commission to redraw the lines.
That second map, which advocates and Democrats describe as a gerrymander, has been in effect since 2014.
Democrats flipped the state Supreme Court in 2015, with a long term aim of holding the court for the next redistricting cycle.
All eyes will now be on the commission, and Nordenberg as chair, to see how he and the commission choses to divide up the commonwealth.
In a statement, House Republican leader Benninghoff did not comment on Nordenberg’s qualifications, but said he appreciated the quick pick.
“I look forward to engaging in a fair, open, and legal redistricting process,” he added.
The mapping will not begin in earnest until the state receives updated U.S. Census data, potentially as late as fall.
Looking at the commonwealth’s 67 counties, 1,000 municipalities, and 1,500 townships, which should not, according to the state constitution, be divided unless “absolutely necessary,” Nordenberg noted the challenge. But, he saw an ally in technology.
“This will be an occasion in which I am more grateful for computers than I normally am,” Nordenberg said.