Evan M. Lopez
[ geography ]
Once a decade, Philadelphia's City Council embarks on a project so complicated, so intense and so completely nonsensical in so many ways that it threatens to tear the city's legislative arm apart and bring the very machinery of city government grinding to a halt. This time around — according to various sources in City Hall — might be the worst.
Prepare, Philadelphia, for The Great Redistricting from Hell.
By mandate of ye olde City Charter, Philadelphia's councilmanic districts must be redrawn every 10 years, following the U.S. Census count, to make each represent roughly 10 percent of the city's population. When one district loses some share of its population, it has to expand its borders to gain it back; if it has more than its share, it has to give some up. If they don't finish by their deadline, Council stops getting paid.
What's more, the process is carried out not by geographers but by Council members — politicians with political motives and political methods. In 2001, redistricting dragged on for five months past deadline while Council members and then-Mayor John Street fought over district boundaries behind closed doors. It was during that time, while Council members weren't being paid, that former Councilman Rick Mariano accepted bribes, for which he was later convicted and served prison time.
And that, according to some sources in City Hall, was an easy year compared to the situation they now face. Recently the city's new census data was circulated to Council members, including a map of where and how population has changed that "literally sent chills down my spine," as one source in Council put it.
Basically, the city's western districts have all lost population, while those in the east and northeast have grown. Those in the middle have stayed about the same. The districts that have lost population, in other words, are adjacent, as are those that grew — meaning there's almost nowhere for anybody to go but straight through the middle.
Take, for example, the 3rd Council District, represented by Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell and comprising most of West Philadelphia. That district is about 7,000 people too small. But the districts directly to the north and south of it — the 4th District, represented by Curtis Jones Jr., and the 2nd, represented by Anna Verna — have also lost population.
"I have no idea how we're going to get it done," says Blackwell frankly, noting that the only nearby district that's gained population is the 5th, represented by Councilman Darrell Clarke. "But Darrell says, 'J.B., that's Strawberry Mansion — that's my base!'"
"They're going to have to move things all over the place," affirmed another City Hall source. "You almost think it would be better to start from scratch."
The complications go on and on: The city's powerful 8th Ward in Center City, currently split between different Council members, is lobbying hard to be represented by just one. The city's waterfront, a major source of politicking, will hang in the balance of other negotiations.
Another piece of the puzzle is the preposterously gerrymandered 7th District, represented by Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, which borders all but three of the other districts.
"We're right in the bullseye," admits Quiñones-Sánchez, adding, "We need to figure out what to do in the Northeast" — where her district slivers into less-Latino areas — "and everything else will be shaped by that."
Oh, and Council just recessed for the summer — even though the whole shebang has to be resolved by Sept. 9, the day after Council officially reconvenes.
None of this gives much hope to those, like Mayor Michael Nutter and the watchdog group Committee of Seventy, who have urged Council to make redistricting more public and transparent.
"We issued a statement in March, and we said we think you've got to start now, you've only got six months," says Seventy's Ellen Kaplan. "They didn't do anything! Let's face it ... Council isn't focused on redistricting when they're running for election."
As for public meetings, "The sense is [Council] wants to have a couple," says spokesman Anthony Radwansky. But no, a date has not yet been set for any.