Fairness and transparency were the key watch words as the legislative commission charged with the once-a-decade task of redrawing Pennsylvania’s House and Senate districts kicked off two days’ worth of public interviews to find its next chairman.
“An honest redistricting in 2021, arguably, is the most important redistricting in the history of our country,” former Berks County President Judge Art Grim told the four-member panel made up of the Democratic and Republican floor leaders in the state House and Senate.
Kimberly Felan, of Johnstown, offered a similar sentiment, simply telling the commission that “fairness means a lot to me.” Felan was one of three women applicants to appear before the panel.
Grim was one of several applicants Monday who hit at least one de-facto requirement of chairing the body formally known as the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, he’s a former judge, just like some of the other past chairpeople of the commission.
That was a fact that Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, a commission member, noted to another applicant with a judicial background.
Any Pennsylvania resident who does not hold paid office at the local, state or federal level is eligible under the state constitution to chair the panel. In all, 41 people have applied for the job this year.
The position is not technically full-time, but “does require a significant investment of time” until the redistricting process is finished, the commission said in a statement late last month.
The chair typically commands a small staff until the redistricting is complete. They can also expect to collect a salary: the most recent chair, who oversaw redistricting in 2011, was paid $9,450 a month, according to the Pocono Record.
Historically, the commission has deadlocked on its pick, leaving it to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to decide for them.
Whomever lawmakers choose, that person will lead the commission through the redistricting cycle that could last until next spring. The appointed head of the panel can also expect to break ties among its partisan members, as they produce maps that will influence the balance of political power in Harrisburg for the next decade.
Some of the 28 applicants who came before the commission on Monday — both in-person and over Zoom — came to the table with more political experience than others. Most stressed their plans to be impartial referees.
Such was the case with Sam Katz of Philadelphia, a Republican who made an unsuccessful bid for mayor of the City of Brotherly Love in 2003. Katz also formerly served as an aide to former Pennsylvania House Speaker Herb Fineman.
“Until the cartography is farther along, the chair needs to be a mediator, a process manager,” Katz told lawmakers, adding that the panel’s chairman will have to try “to understand the guiding principles,” behind the decennial remapping. “Hopefully we can make maps that are fair and transparent. I try to keep my views to myself so I have the best chance of succeeding.”
Jill Linta, of Dauphin County, a onetime Democratic state House candidate and community advocate, stressed her grassroots bona fides, adding that she was “not partisan and believe[s] everyone has a voice.”
“There’s a lot of disheartened people out there, and they need to be heard,” Linta told the panel.
Others, such as Eric Randall, of Pittsburgh, said he was spurred to act because he felt it was his civic duty to do so.
“As a Black man, only reason I can vote at all because countless people before had worked and marched , so I owed it to them,” he said, adding later that, “Democracy protects us from tyranny, but not bad decisions. Our democracy has been sometimes better, sometimes worse. But history teaches we can make progress through engagement and perseverance.”
Applicant Rick Thorne, an electrical engineer, stressed his outsider status, as well as his experience in dealing with the large data sets that underpin the remapping process.
“It’s hard for someone to pull the wool over my eyes because of some mathematical gibberish,” he said. “I want the maps to be created with rules that are fair, public, and consistently applied. Whether one map favors one party or another is immaterial to me. I’m happy to talk to people, I’m even happier to listen.”
It’s possible that this year’s chair will face different eligibility requirements from his or her predecessors.
A state Senate committee gave bipartisan support last month to a bill that aims to limit the political connections of the commission chair.
The proposal by state Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill, disqualifies anyone who has registered as a lobbyist, been nominated by a political party as a candidate for elected office, or worked for a political entity or public official in the last five years from serving as chair. Those prohibitions also apply to the chair’s spouse, the Capital-Star previously reported.
Argall’s bill also requires the chair to have voted in at least two of the last three General Elections. The legislation must be approved by the full Senate and then the House before going to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk.
The commission is set to hear from its final, 13 applicants on Tuesday.