Centre County Needs Representative House Districts

I live in Pennsylvania Furnace, just outside of State College, PA. My current House District is PA81. I have lived in the State College/Bellefonte community since 1977. For the entire 44 years that I have lived here this area has been politically gerrymandered into several House districts which have very effectively diluted its voice in Harrisburg. Except for the purpose of political gain, the way the current districts are drawn make no sense. In a just process which prioritizes truly hearing this community’s voice in Harrisburg there would be only two House districts. Combined, the population of the State College Area and Bellefonte Area school districts is over 123,000 people. One could make the case for just two House districts strictly on these numbers alone. The fact is, however, that these municipalities and their surrounding communities are interwoven by common day to day living experiences and the shared priorities of those living there. The residents of this community live largely in urban and suburban settings. We share strong community ties related to governance, business and industry, education and health services. And because the Pennsylvania State University is located here, this community includes far broader diversity among its residents and cultures than is typical of the less populated areas which surround it. The political reality of this community is that it leans blue. Yet, for as long as I have lived here its representation in Harrisburg has not reflected this. Currently, for example, the State College community is divided among four House districts. One is relatively small, packed and represented by a Democratic member of the House. The other three are large rural districts with Republican representatives. The State College portions of these three districts are actually so small that a politically shaded map shows them as small blue tips on very large red icebergs. The fact is that these districts cover such vast areas that the voices of State College area residents are simply outnumbered and overwhelmed by the voices in many different rural communities, some from as far as 75 miles away. Lastly, one of the most important concerns resulting from the division of the State College Area school district into so many House districts is the issue of political representation. How well is the State College Area school district actually being represented in Harrisburg when representation is divided among so many legislators? What is especially concerning is that representatives from these districts also serve many rural school districts with cultures and community values that may often be at odds with those in the State College community. Bottom line? The State College/Bellefonte community would be most effectively served by two House districts which primarily encompass these school districts. Whether you look at the local population numbers, the cohesiveness of this community, or how the community geographically aligns with the State College Area and Bellefonte Area school districts, the current splitting of the area is unneeded and excessive. There simply is no fair or sound rationale for dividing this community into more than two districts. Regarding more general redistricting recommendations, even judiciously drawn maps achieve little if they are not trusted by the people whom they are designed to serve. So, I want to stress in the strongest way possible that it is essential that the members of the LRC make it a top priority to do everything in their power to promote public trust in the final map. First and foremost, this requires is a truly transparent process. Making commission meetings and testimony public and accessible as you have done thus far is an excellent beginning. To trust that the final map is indeed a fair and judicious one, however, the public needs to be able to participate throughout the entire process. This means being able to study and provide feedback on potential maps right up to the moment a final version is adopted. Another trust-inspiring decision would be to draw new district maps from scratch. As you know, Pennsylvania’s sordid history of gerrymandering has created immense distrust in the status quo. Instead of building districts which emphasize retaining incumbents and/or party influence, the number one priority must be ensuring that individuals and communities have a real voice. I would also advocate for enabling clearly red areas to remain red and clearly blue areas to remain blue. Just to be clear, I am not promoting packing districts for political gain. What I am doing is recommending that competitiveness not be prioritized over enabling a community with clear political leanings to be heard. The districts that tend to be more purple should be the ones drawn to be more competitive. Finally, I would strongly encourage you to listen carefully to what citizens are telling you about keeping their communities intact. As I’ve already indicated, drawing lines to prevent communities from being packed or cracked for political purposes is far more important than adhering to archaic county boundary lines. In addition, in central and south-central Pennsylvania it may make less sense to emphasize compactness when the natural geography of the mountains and valleys pushes communities to stretch out vertically, as is the case with the State College and Bellefonte community discussed earlier. Lastly, given this country’s historic abuses when it comes to silencing the voices of minority groups, these communities should be given special consideration when it comes to addressing their wishes regarding keeping their communities intact.