End of 80-year era: No Democrat representing Washington, Greene in Congress

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When members of the 113th Congress take their oaths of office Thursday, it will be the first time in 80 years a Democrat has not represented Washington and Greene counties, areas where there are more registered Democrats than Republicans.


Incumbent Republican U.S. Reps. Tim Murphy of Upper St. Clair, Allegheny County, of the 18th Congressional District and Bill Shuster of Hollidaysburg, Blair County, of the 9th Congressional District, will be representing Washington and Greene counties in 2013 and 2014.


Because of the reapportionment that follows each decennial U.S. Census, Murphy and Shuster picked up territory that had been part of the 12th Congressional District from 2002 through 2012, represented first by U.S. Rep. John Murtha and, after his death in February 2010, by his aide, Mark Critz.


In the reapportionment plan that passed in 2011, the 12th Congressional District bypassed both Washington and Greene counties and Critz in November lost to Keith Rothfus, who is also scheduled to be sworn this week.


Asked about the end of an 80-year era, Washington County Elections Director Larry Spahr gave a four-word response: “Gerrymandering, pure and simple.”


It was a sentiment that some local pundits echoed.


Dr. Joseph DiSarro, a Republican and chairman of the Washington & Jefferson College political science department, noted that this past year, just 45 seats of the 435 U.S. House districts were considered competitive.


He noted that Pennsylvania has between 800,000 to one million more Democrats than Republicans, but in its Congressional delegation, it has 13 Republican congressmen and five Democrats.


“The Republicans in Harrisburg who control the Legislature, they took a look and said this is an opportunity to get more Republicans elected. With computer models, you can really pinpoint areas that are going to support you.


“Some states do not have the problem as bad as Pennsylvania does. There is less gerrymandering in Iowa. They use an independent, bipartisan commission. I believe that’s what should be done. In other nation-states such as England, the House of Commons does not draw the district boundaries.”


The political maneuvering doesn’t help foster unity, he added.


“This discourages some people from voting, because they already know who’s going to win. It doesn’t do anything for compromise, and the only action is within the party’s primary, which makes for hard positions taken by candidates, because they feel Republicans will have a primary challenge from the right and Democrats will have a primary challenge from the left.”


DiSarro said he prefers creating districts that “look like a district, a square or a rectangle, not a salamander.”


The word gerrymandering comes from, Elbridge Gerry, former Massachusetts governor in 1810 and 1811 who was criticized for redristricting the state to his own party’s advantage. One district was said to take the shape of a salamander.


“Politics is about power, but should you have districts so lopsided and drawn in such a way that you don’t even have to have the election?


DiSarro noted that the last member of Congress from Washington County was Frank Mascara, who served from 1984 to 2002, when his district was eliminated and he ran unsuccessfully against Murtha, who was from Johnstown. “That speaks volumes. If you don’t have someone from your county, you may not get as much for you county from Washington, D.C.”


In the post-2000 reapportionment, Murtha had all of Greene County and more than half of Washington County, including a split Charleroi with a congressional district boundary that ran through the middle of Mascara’s street.


One of DiSarro’s fellow Republicans expressed the opposite view.


Asked if he was surprised to learn Thursday will mark the end of a trend that lasted eight decades, Tom Uram, outgoing Washington County Republican Party chairman said, “Surprised? Yes and no. I guess I would have to say yes. Even the Democrats that we had here were very conservative. Doc (Thomas) Morgan is about as far back as I remember. He was an interesting guy. He was right in the thick of things when Vietnam was happening. He was in the (George) Washington Hotel one time when he got a phone call from Henry Kissinger.”


As to the turnover of Washington and Greene counties from Democratic to Republican in Congress, Uram said, “We have a viable party system now that we didn’t have before. We’ve had activity from traditional Democratic strongholds like Fredericktown and Charleroi offering to help and volunteer. I think they were happy to be able to know that the party was alive and well here.”


Former Washington County commissioner Bracken Burns, a lifelong Democrat who left office nearly a year ago, weighed on the issue with observations that sounded remarkably similar to DiSarro’s.


“I attended a conference on gerrymandering once and got my eyes opened on what a nefarious act it is,” Burns said.


“It’s very, very detrimental to the workings in Congress.


“The districts are safe, custom-made and computer-designed to practically assure they vote the party line and they don’t have to worry about the minority, whatever it is.


“Public service is about just that, serving everyone in your district. When they get down there and there’s an impasse, like on the debt ceiling, there’s no motivation to do anything diplomatic. It’s probably the sole cause of why we are where we are.”


When U.S. Rep. Mark Critz leaves the 112th Congress, he’ll not, the words of poet Dylan Thomas, go gently into that good night. “To put it bluntly, I’m still in shock,” said Critz in early December as Congress and President Barack Obama were at loggerheads over a solution to the looming, so-called “fiscal cliff.”


“The district was about 70 percent new to me. My hope was that we were going to keep the Southwestern corner intact, Washington, Greene and Fayette. They have demographics similar to Somerset and Cambria.


“But with the Republican Party in control of reapportionment, there was a desire to eliminate a Democratic seat, and they were very effective in splitting Washington County and Greene County and the Mon Valley.”


Twenty-one communities in the Mon Valley went to Shuster’s 9th District, as did 22 of Greene County’s 44 precincts. “Cal U. to Shippensburg, that’s quite a behemoth of a district. Harrisburg to the Mon Valley is sort of ridiculous in my perspective,” Critz said.


“They took Democratic voting strength, diluted it, and put it with the North Hills of Pittsburgh.”


Critz and fellow Democrat Jason Altmire were pitted in the primary, and Republicans were successful in eliminating Critz in the general election.


The outgoing Democrat said it took $7 million worth of money from outside the district to defeat him in a race that gave Republican Keith Rothfus a 3 percent margin of victory.


“Vulnerability is a relative term depending on how much money is spent against you,” Critz said. “With those three counties, I wouldn’t have been vulnerable.”


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