Redistricting chair Nordenberg defends proposed state House map against GOP attacks

‘It’s awkward to talk about myself, but I don’t have teams of public relations professionals to talk about myself like the caucus leaders do,’ he said Thursday

By: - January 6, 2022 6:07 pm

Mark Nordenberg speaks at a University of Pittsburgh event. (Courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh)

The chair of Pennsylvania’s legislative redistricting commission has forcefully pushed back against Republican claims that he’s biased against them.  

Mark Nordenberg, chairman of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, opened a Thursday public hearing to take testimony on the proposed 2022 maps of the state’s legislative districts with a 30-minute defense of the commission and his own bipartisan reputation.

“It’s awkward to talk about myself, but I don’t have teams of public relations professionals to talk about myself like the caucus leaders do,” Nordenberg said.

The commission is made up of Nordenberg, who was picked by the state Supreme Court, as well as 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.

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As chair, Nordenberg has shepherded the decennial redrawing of the state’s 253 legislative districts amid the partisan rancor of Harrisburg.

Drafts of the commission’s two maps, for the House and Senate, were approved last month. The Senate map was approved unanimously, but the commission’s two Republican members voted against the House map.

Since the map was approved, Republicans have argued it is a partisan map favoring Democrats. They point to 12 Republican representatives drawn into a single district together, versus just two Democratic incumbents facing off.

Benninghoff also has claimed that the draft House map has more districts that lean Democratic,  according to Dave’s Redistricting App, an online tool that analyzes legislative districts.

“By drawing a map that is meant for no other reason than to cement a legislative majority for a certain party for the coming decade, they do not make things ‘fair,’” Benninghoff wrote in an op-ed published in the Centre Daily Times last month.​​

Additionally, an article published by Fox News highlighted one $2,000 donation Nordenberg made to Democratic President Joe Biden this year — a donation previously reported by the Capital-Star — which at least one Republican lawmaker shared on social media.

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“The Chairman of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, Mark Nordenberg, is a Biden donor and was a member of the Wolf transition team,” state Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, said on Twitter.

But Nordenberg pushed back on Benninghoff’s use of Dave’s Redistricting App to support his claims of  gerrymandering.

The measurement that claims Democrats would win a majority under the map, Nordenberg said, assumes election results similar to those from the most recent presidential, U.S. Senate, governor and attorney general races.

Democrats have won all but one of those races since 2016, so the composite assumes Democrats received 5  percent more of the statewide vote than Republicans.

In such a circumstance, Nordenberg said, it makes sense that Democrats would secure a majority with the maps.

The maps slightly favor Republicans, Nordenberg argued, because in a hypothetical 50-50 election, Republicans would still win a majority of the 203-member House with 105 seats.

As such, the preliminary House map “continues to favor Republicans, but not by as much as the current map,” Nordenberg argued.

Nordenberg also called out Republican concerns about the GOP incumbent-on-incumbent match ups. He said he had rejected Republicans’ request to decide where to move three western Pennsylvania districts, which ended up in Lancaster, Montgomery, and Philadelphia counties.

Because House Republicans and Democrats did not negotiate among themselves, Nordenberg added, he was forced to step in, and judge their submissions himself.

“If the Republican submissions have less impact on the final map than the submissions of the Democratic team, that is because we found the submissions from the Democratic team to be more persuasive.”

Republicans’ submissions drafted maps that focused on shrinking rural counties.

Finally, Nordenberg argued he’d long been a top pick for Republicans to run the commission. He was first considered for the chairmanship in 1990, and was recruited by former Republican state Attorney General  Mike Fisher, of Allegheny County, who was then a member of the state Senate. 

However, that nomination was sunk by Democratic votes on the commission — one opposing him, one abstaining — Nordenberg noted. He then declined an offer from Republicans to litigate his way to the chairmanship after the disputed vote.

Since, Republican lawmakers have asked him to serve on various fact-finding missions and transition teams, which Nordenberg took as a sign of the GOP’s trust in him.

“There have been so many baseless claims made about the maps, the process, the commission staff, and me,” Nordenberg said. “But I felt it was important to respond because the work of the Commission is so important.”

The public has until Jan. 15 to submit comments on the map, after which the commission has 30 days to adjust the map and approve a final version.

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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.