#WURDoftheDay: Will Pennsylvania’s 1st Congressional District Ever Get a Black Member of Congress? (… & other questions after the PA Supreme Court Gerrymander Ruling)


by Charles Ellison | WURD | @ellisonreport

That’s actually been a daunting question through a blend of several decades of white Irish and Italian descended Congressmen ruling the Philadelphia political machine despite the heavy residential composition of diverse, primarily Black voters. It’s been barely tolerated for as long as anyone growing up there can remember, even as its shape — through dramatic, questionable redesign — has meandered from the city’s western to eastern half over time. Fair Districts PA offers an illuminating interactive map showing that change over 60 years of remapping, just click your cursor over each year.

There is game theory over whether or not the recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling against Republican gerrymandering in the Commonwealth could reverse all that. We’re not sure yet, sifting through all the talk that Democrats could end up with 3 or 4 flipped seats once the current 18 Congressional districts are redrawn. We don’t know how that process will unfold: state Republicans are already asking for a stay. The PA Supreme Court has demanded that state Senate Republicans in Harrisburg redraw the map by Feb. 9th, submit it to Gov. Tom Wolf (D-PA) for approval by Feb. 15th, who then submits it to the Court for final review and approval.

The idea is to get the new maps in place by the time of Pennsylvania’s May 15th Congressional primary. Obviously, that raises the question of what happens to PA-1. Will PA-1 be redrawn to fit the demands of a weary Black and diverse electorate looking to replace current Rep. Bob Brady (D-PA) with someone “of color?” There has been speculation for years that some Democratic leaders, including Brady, had quietly struck deals with state Republicans in the last redistricting to maintain, letting them maintain deeply red and infamously gerrymandered districts so long as they — certain Democrats — got to keep their individual seats.

In the case of PA-1, “woke” Black political observers and community advocates have grimaced over the reality of federal representation by white ethnics whose racial allegiances are constantly under scrutiny. Understandably so in tensely segregated, working class and low income Philadelphia; even the late Congressman Thomas Foglietta’s honorable-mention associations with the Congressional Black Caucus did little to assuage the obvious concerns. Even with Foglietta’s departure in 1997, Philadelphia’s Black political class couldn’t muster up enough Black North Philadelphia political juice against the domination of Philly’s white-run labor unions, failing to finally achieve (at least the impression of) better Black political representation not just in City Hall and Harrisburg, but in Washington, D.C., too.

The constant reflex to gerrymander Congressional districts like PA-1 is one solid hint that this is by design. As Philly’s Black population grew, so did accelerated efforts to contain any political growth or the slightest fume of full Black residential empowerment. One can easily see that the racial representation split between PA-1 and PA-2 is part of a mischievous, yet not-all-that-unusual deal between the city’s political elite: sure, let Black Philly go ahead and get its one Member of Congress. And it’s had that since Robert C. Nix was elected to PA-4 in 1963. Shrewd and calculating influentials have come to the cynical conclusion that such a balance presents just enough symbolism to keep terribly disenfranchised and anxious Black residents a little less restless and angry.

Current Rep. Brady’s (D-PA) FBI-probing woes (along with a possible map redraw forced by the state Supreme Court) may change that — at least, that’s what some folks hope. It may have opened up a refreshed move to double-up Black or “people of color” federal representation in Philly. A number of potential challengers, as expected, perceive the longtime Congressman as mortally wounded by the optical taint of corruption. The extent of that, for example, was on full display during this past November election as open rifts exposed themselves throughout Philly’s traditional Democratic machine.

While that may, indeed, be true, a needed Democratic primary bout in PA-1 is a deeper reflection of demographic problems and gripes that, to the chagrin and surprise of many, have not yet posed a politically fatal threat to Brady.

Maybe that’s changing now. Is it? Brady’s delicate demographic issue, maintaining rein over wide swaths of impoverished Black and Brown Philadelphia for so long as a gregarious white union carpenter by profession while not being much of a policy mover and shaker in Washington, D.C., shows itself in the demographic make-up of announced primary challengers thus far. Former deputy Mayor Nina Ahmad is viewed as a frontrunner while former bank executive Michele Lawrence, newer to politics, could be formidable. Many will have trouble getting past disgraced former traffic court judge Willie Singletary’s prison time (despite an admittedly impressive announcement video for a first try) — but will they take Casey McLeod any more seriously? Perennial Congressional candidate Lindy Li could be a sleeper. There are so many others whispering they’ll run, too.

What is clear is that three out of five of these diverse candidates above are Black, two are Asian and three are women. None have filed officially as campaigns yet. But it does indicate an intention to leverage voters “of color,” and more specifically Black voters in PA-1. Which is why the reported exploration of a bid by deputy mayor Richard Lazer, a white male, is both perplexing and predictable. That is also an indication of the city’s political elite — including Mayor Jim Kenney, another white male — attempting to maintain that racial political balance. One would assume Kenney would put his chips behind Ahmad considering she worked for him and she’s a woman of color during a time of pronounced feminism and #MeToo in a district and a city that, on the surface, is screaming for progressive change.

But, Lazer’s potential entrance could raise the specter of major split-vote problems for the crowded field of diverse candidates whereby no one person is able to mobilize the bulk of Black, Brown and Asian voters behind them while the white guy sails through on a collection of PA-1’s mostly white voters who are the most reliable during an “off cycle” Congressional election.

There has always been an overestimation of collective Black population and voter muscle in PA-1, stemming from an expectation that Black-heavy North Philly will eventually accomplish the task of ousting Brady. We’ll see what happens if PA-1 is redrawn before the primary and shifts back to covering larger portions of North Philadelphia. There has been failed recognition that PA-1 became even less deep North Philly during the last redistricting scheme in 2011. Others just see a lot of “people of color” in North Philadelphia — especially Black folks. But as the race for PA-1 heats up — or if it ever does — it will be essential to understand that the district is not as Black as it once was, now only 33.7 percent out of 678,723 residents according to the latest 2016 American Community Survey estimates, declining from a majority 46 percent black almost twenty years before at the dawn of the century. Whites now account for 48.2 percent of the PA-1 population, or nearly half the district’s population. The Latino population is about 16 percent and the Asian population is about 7 percent, each growing.

Conventional speculation on the contours of a brewing PA-1 race suggests that Democratic primary outcome will hinge on the present #MeToo moment, hence the dominance of announced women. Others rush to the analysis that the fast changing age, income and ideological composition of the district (translated: white Millennials) is the major factor that will finally drive Brady out. But make no mistake about it: cultural demographics in highly segregated Philadelphia will be the key … for the challenger that makes the most of it and focuses more on building a racial coalition led by awakened Black voter clout. Certain sections of Philly will be at the center of that match, particularly North Philly, and someone has to figure out how to mobilize what has been, to this day, a fairly sleepy Black electorate throughout that part of the city and other places where turnout was anemic at best in the 2017 election cycle.

CHARLES D. ELLISON is Executive Producer/Host of “Reality Check” on WURD Radio (96.1FM / 900AM / wurdradio.com) in Philadelphia. He is Principal of B|E Strategy and Washington Correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune, as well as a weekly Contributor to The Philadelphia Citizen. Found on Twitter @ellisonreport