New congressional map makes Swiss cheese of Swissvale, complicating Pittsburgh primary

The architect of the split defended it, saying it was necessary to avoid a court challenge

By: - February 24, 2022 4:49 pm

State Rep. Summer Lee, D-Allegheny, speaks at her campaign kick off event on November 13, 2021. (Lee campaign photo)

*This story was updated at 7:39 pm on Thursday, 2/24/22 with additional information from Jonathan Rodden.

A California political scientist started a firestorm in Pittsburgh over how he drew a congressional boundary through an Allegheny County municipality.

Hired by Democratic attorney Marc Elias’ law firm to redraw Pennsylvania’s congressional map in the state’s redistricting lawsuit, Stanford University political scientist Jonathan Rodden divided Swissvale, a borough of 8,700 on the border of Pittsburgh, between two districts.

The division was needed, Rodden said in an email, because of the exacting population standard for congressional districts. They must be almost exactly equal to survive court challenges, he noted.

Rodden’s congressional blueprint was submitted to the state Supreme Court by a group of citizen plaintiffs represented by Elias and backed by the National Redistricting Action Fund, a Democratic dark money group.

On Wednesday, the court picked Rodden’s map, beating out 12 other proposals to be the commonwealth’s next congressional plan.

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But the Swissvale split, the only one in Allegheny County, put one announced Democratic congressional candidate — progressive state Rep. Summer Lee, D-Allegheny — in a competitive, suburban district and another — University of Pittsburgh law professor Jerry Dickinson — in the Pittsburgh-based seat. Both are Swissvale residents.

Residency requirements for congressional runs are light. The federal Constitution only requires that U.S. representatives are at least 25 years old; have been a citizen for seven years; and live in the state they are running in, so Lee or Dickinson could run in either district.

But both claimed the new Pittsburgh-based 12th District — which also includes parts of the Monongahela Valley and Westmoreland County — as their true home.

In a statement Wednesday, Dickinson said the new 12th District “is where my wife Emily and I live, it is where we are raising our family, and it deserves to be represented by someone who has a real stake in its future and lives in this community.” 

The statement also specifically pointed out that Lee did not live within the new lines. This is Dickinson’s second congressional run; he unsuccessfully primaried long-time U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-18th, in 2020. Doyle is now retiring, resulting in a wide-open primary.

In response, Lee said in a statement that it was “a shame, but not a surprise, that my home and the communities I currently represent were divided – down to the precinct I live in.”

“We know there are barriers to Black women and people who build people-powered campaigns, but our movements are strong enough to win,” Lee added.

Lee burst into politics in 2018 with an upstart run against longtime House lawmaker Paul Costa, brother of Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny. She won the race handily.

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An outspoken progressive in Harrisburg, Lee then fended off a challenge from her right in her 2020 primary, before announcing her congressional bid. She already has the endorsement of a number of House colleagues, labor unions, and national progressive groups.

The redrawn 12th District, which was formerly on the other side of the state in north-central Pennsylvania, not the 17th District, in which Lee now lives, “is my home,” Lee added, “from my childhood in the Mon Valley’s North Braddock and Rankin, to Swissvale to the coalition of supporters across the city — and remains my home, and I’m ready to fight for the future it deserves.”

Despite the rhetoric, the split of Swissvale was by chance, Rodden said in an email.

“I can assure you that I had no information about potential candidates or their residential addresses,” he said. “I’m not sure where I would have even gotten such information, or what I would have done with it if I had it.”

How Swissvale was divided (Screenshot from DRA)

Rodden’s task, he said, was to draw a map that would closely hew to the 2018 court drawn map, even as the state loses a seat in Washington D.C..

Working from there, he needed to find a municipality which he could split to make sure both the 12th and 17th Districts had the same number of people. Swissvale, Rodden said, fit the bill.

The split was “purely because the blocks were of the right size and arrangement and the population numbers worked out right,” he added.

Lee and Dickinson are not alone in the Democratic primary in this heavily blue seat. Pittsburgh attorney Steve Irwin and startup CEO Bhavini Patel are also running.

On Thursday, Irwin announced a slate of endorsements, including from former Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and former City Council President Bruce Kraus.

In a statement, Irwin said his campaign is focused on “pocketbook issues,”and wants southwestern Pennsylvanians to capitalize on “its strong labor history and core capabilities in robotics and artificial intelligence to create the manufacturing and technology jobs of the future.”

Patel, who also now lives outside the new 12th District but is running in it, argued in a statement that she would “build on the legacy of Congressman Doyle and fight for the working men and women of this region every day.”

The neighboring 17th District that two of the candidates have eschewed is less Democratic than the 12th District, and political analysts peg it as a toss up in the coming midterm election. 

It includes most of Pittsburgh’s western and northern suburbs, as well as all of neighboring Beaver County.

Moderate U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-17th District, has held a similarly drawn district since 2018, but he is now running for U.S. Senate.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.