Street says Senate congressional draft is fair, protects minority voters; Democrats say he sold out

The Legislature must pass a map, and Gov. Tom Wolf must sign it, by Jan. 24

By: - December 9, 2021 1:29 pm

Gov. Tom Wolf and state Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, talk before a press conference on voting rights on June 9, 2021 (Capital-Star photo).

*This story was updated at 2:36 p.m. 12/9/21 with comment from Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, and state Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Centre, and at 2:50 p.m. 12/9/21 with additional comment from Street.

Facing social media scorn and internal party outrage, the lead Democratic architect of a negotiated map of Pennsylvania’s new congressional districts is defending the work product.

State Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, cautioned that the map, made public on Wednesday night, is a draft and that negotiations with Senate State Government Committee Chairperson Sen. Dave Argall, R-Schuylkill, are ongoing. Street is the panel’s ranking Democrat.

However, Street said the leaked draft, which is dated Dec. 3, shores up the districts of key Democratic incumbents, protects Black and Latino voting populations, and mirrors maps produced by citizen redistricting groups.

“I was tasked as the chair of state government, by our constitution, to negotiate with the Republicans and that’s what we’ve been doing,” Street  told the Capital-Star on Thursday. “The fact that it was leaked is concerning, but it doesn’t change the fact that we have a job to do.”

The map, Street argues, preserves the chances for a Black candidate, such as state Rep. Summer Lee, D-Allegheny, to run and win in a Pittsburgh-based seat, but keep the city’s Democratic base whole.

Lee, one of the House’s most vocal progressive members, is seeking the Democratic nomination for the current 18th Congressional District. The incumbent, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, of Pittsburgh, is retiring. 

Street added that he talked to Lee about the lines, as well as at least 16 of his Democratic Senate colleagues.

[Editor’s note: After publication, Street clarified that Lee did not get a formal meeting on the maps, and that Street “called her because I respect her views on it.”]

“It wasn’t like two guys in a room with a couple staffers,” Street said. “This was a work product where lots and lots of staff [and] Senators had input.” 

‘It’s a Rubik’s Cube’: Pa. grapples with competing redistricting priorities

Meanwhile, the redrawn suburban Pittsburgh district, Street added, would remain competitive for Democrats without splitting Pittsburgh or neighboring, majority-Black municipalities.

The twisting, snake-like proposal in the Dec. 3 draft — which stretches from Beaver County to Indiana County — was still being edited, Street added.

On the other side of the state, the map also shores up incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan’s suburban Philadelphia district, which would improve from about 5 percent above average Democratic district to 12 percent, and keeps U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright’s northeastern Pennsylvania-based 8th District seat competitive, Street claimed.

“We don’t do a Democratic gerrymander. We don’t do a Republican gerrymander. We’re trying to be fair,” Street said.

As for northeastern Philadelphia, redistricting group Draw the Lines PA’s citizen’s map drew parts of the mostly white area into a Bucks County district. Street said he used those lines as a way to create a second Voting Rights Act-compliant district to protect minority political power.

“I was elected by people in the state Senate who believe that the Voting Rights Act matters,” Street said. “Most of our [state Senate] delegation has told me they believe the Voting Rights Act matters … Even the Senate Republicans, Senator Argall, have acknowledged that the Voting Rights Act is a valid consideration. And that’s got to be a part of this narrative.”

The new majority-minority district would be open to Street if he wanted to run, and many political observers expect he would. All Street would say Thursday is, “I’m not ruling anything out.”

Redistricting, explained: What it is, how it works, and how Pa. politicians get to draw their own maps

Privately, Democratic political sources told the Capital-Star that the map was unacceptable, and protected Street’s own ambitions rather than the party or its goals.

“At a time when our House majority hangs by a thread, it’s a disgrace for any Democrat to conspire with Republicans to advance a Republican map, just to advance one’s selfish interests,” one Democratic source told the Capital-Star.

The map could also force a primary between current northeast Philadelphia U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-2nd District, and Street, were the state senator to run. 

Boyle, another veteran Philadelphia lawmaker, would live instead in a suburban-anchored district, but congressional candidates do not have within the lines of the seat they run for.

Still, in the state legislature, Democrats offered some public support for Street’s efforts. In an emailed statement, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said that map started the redistricting conversation in the Senate, and that he was  “pleased to see that it protects the Voting Rights Act.”

The draft matches the House proposal released Wednesday in a few places, including in how parts of Butler and Cumberland counties are split.

A staffer for Street said that’s because Republicans copied districts from the House map, drawn by redistricting advocate Amanda Holt, as a starting point. 

Pa. House Republicans pick citizen map submission as draft congressional plan

Those craggy edges were under negotiation in more recent drafts as the parties balance population, splits, and competitive balance among other factors.

Argall confirmed that he was using the Holt map as a base for the Senate drafts.

Everything in the map “is still subject to negotiation,” Argall said, but “the good news is people are talking.” 

“There’s been a lot of discussions with the House, there’s been a lot of discussions with Senator Street,” Argall added.

Holt’s personal website includes four draft congressional maps for 2022, which echo but do not exactly match both the House and Senate drafts.

“The following set of maps were created to illustrate it is possible, using a minimal overall population range, to keep every municipality in Pennsylvania whole (except Philadelphia),” Holt wrote. 

Holt was not immediately available for comment, but is set to testify at a House hearing on their map on Wednesday evening at 5:30 p.m.

Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Centre, the ranking Democrat on the House State Government Committee, told the Capital-Star that he was was frustrated by the lack of transparency, even as Republicans had promised an open process.

Despite his ask to be “in the room where it happens” on the maps, Conklin said, neither Argall, Street, nor House Republican State Government Committee Chairperson Seth Grove, R-York, had given him the slightest warning of their maps, let alone allow Conklin or House Democrats input on using the Holt map.

“As chairman of State Government, I was blindsided by the map yesterday, and I was blindsided this morning by the Senate map,” Conklin said.

Pa. redistricting is poised to be transparent. Will it be fair? Advocates think yes.

To become law, the congressional map must pass the Republican-controlled General Assembly and be signed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. 

The Department of State, the executive branch agency charged with overseeing elections, said earlier this year that it needs the maps by Jan. 24 to allow for the state’s May 2022 primary to go on as scheduled.

Such a deadline, Argall told the Capital-Star is tight, but he believes it is manageable.

Legislative leaders had floated delaying next year’s primary to give lawmakers extra time to develop the congressional and legislative maps. However, Argall said there is not “any appetite for that” among Senate Republicans. 

If the General Assembly cannot come to an agreement, the state Supreme Court would be tasked with drawing the maps. The court currently has a 5-2 liberal majority.

It was too early to say if the justices would have to step in, Argall added.

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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.